Do we need more leaders like Martin Luther?
In the 500th anniversary year of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, attention was given not only to the moment when Luther posted his bullet points concerning indulgences but also to when he stood before his accusers at the Diet of Worms four years later and said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Ignore the irritating fact that many scholars say that Luther did not actually say those words. They so fit the moment that if Luther didn’t say them, he should have.
Charged to recant his writings, Luther could not do it. In a way, he refused to “repeal and replace.” To recant all his writings was, for him, to recant the gospel since much of what he had written was clearly biblical and in keeping with the teachings of the church. Though his life was in danger, Luther could not sacrifice the virtue of fidelity to the truth as he knew it.
In that moment, was Luther a “saint”? Does the church need more saints like him?
Luther would object to the “saint” label unless it comes with certain qualifications. He famously said we are all simultaneously saints and sinners (Simul Justus Et Peccator). Sinners are made saints by the grace of God. He rejected any notion of sainthood that suggests a state of perfection. Luther knew he was not perfect.
He certainly was not. To celebrate the anniversary year in 2017, I preached a number of sermons in a series I called “Luther still speaks.” Each sermon spoke with appreciation about one of Luther’s doctrines. I also gave a Wednesday night presentation called “Luther still speaks: Even when he shouldn’t.” That night, I talked about a tract he wrote late in life, “The Jews and their lies.” This anti-Semitic diatribe became source material for Hitler and other German nationalists seeking to justify a “final solution to the Jewish problem.” The tract is so regrettable that Luther biographer Roland Bainton was led to say, “One could wish that Luther had died before ever this tract was written.”
So, if a “saint” has to be anywhere close to perfection, Luther did not qualify. However, I want to use a different definition of “saint” that might fit Luther – one offered (ironically) by a Jewish philosopher. For Maimonides, a saint (hassid) is not one who is perfect or one who is made perfect by God’s grace, but one who is unwavering in defense of a virtue. The saint, Maimonides says, is less concerned with pleasing others than pleasing God. When one cannot budge because one dares not displease God, it is the action of a saint.
Eric Liddell had one of those “saint” moments. The Scottish sprinter would not run in the 100-meter heats of the 1924 Paris Olympics, his best event, because they were scheduled on Sunday. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” he was given the perfect quote long before he must take his stand. He and his fiancé felt called to go to China as missionaries. He justified postponing the assignment to run in the Olympics by saying, “When I run, I can feel [God’s] pleasure.” For the saint, feeling God’s pleasure is the controlling passion — certainly above winning the pleasure and affirmation of others.
These “saint” moments can be leadership moments because they can capture human imagination and inspire a desire in others to also know God’s pleasure. Why else would a book filled with stories of those martyred for their faith be called one of the most influential English texts ever published? To be sure, reading the lurid tales in “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” has its own fascination, but the book was treasured because of the conviction that martyrs rally others to the faith. As Tertullian so famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The role of the saint is highlighted when set in contrast to other leaders who are willing to sacrifice virtues for the sake of other aims: the negotiators who compromise, the politicians who cut deals, the mediators who seek conciliation. From the saint’s perspective, these leaders often lack the courage to take needed stands and become enemies of progress. Luther felt that way about fellow theologians who were sympathetic to his views about indulgences but who condemned his sharing his views with the masses because the unity of the church was put at risk.
As a minister with over three decades of ordained experience serving congregations with wide diversity of views, I confess to being one of the compromisers, dealmakers and conciliators. I feel the guilt of compromises made in order to hold the middle of the church. I have held back in saying clearly what I believed to be the truth when I knew that the capacity to hear it did not match my capacity to articulate it. I have envied pastors of “activist churches” where the pastor and congregation are of one mind and the internal celebration of bold prophetic preaching is made all the sweeter by the condemnation of the “unenlightened” who have yet to see their truth.
But one doesn’t build a pension over three decades by being “unfettered.” Mind you, I have compromised for good reasons, such as helping a church to heal or to bring everyone together in a common cause. Still, I also have compromised primarily to avoid the aggravation, quiet the complainers and calm the staff storm. Yes, middle-ground pastors like me, who are honest, have plenty to confess.
However, we hold-the-middle pastors also can find a note of absolution in the writings of Maimonides. Maimonides had a personality that leaned toward his definition of a saint; he was a loner who yearned to be close to God. He took brave stands. After Cordova fell to an Islamic army, he was exiled for refusing to renounce his faith. Yet, Maimonides believed that the people of God needed more “sages” than “saints.”
In a NextChurch blog I described what Maimonides meant by sage (hakkam):
“A sage is someone who understands that politics is the ‘art of the possible.’ The saint will take a stand despite the cost. The sage will consider the costs, is willing to compromise, and can accept losing. The saint leads by taking a stand. The sage leads by holding the middle.”
The sage knows that with every virtue comes a vice; that tied to every righteous agenda is self-interest. The sage as a leader helps keep the community from failing in its mission, while making sure that progress does not unnecessarily leave anyone behind. The sage can hear different sides of an argument, and show respect to the person with whom even the sage disagrees.
In “To Heal a Fractured World,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in explaining Maimonides’ terms, put it this way:
“The sage embodies wisdom, the saint piety. The saint may be closer to God, while the sage is closer to doing what God wants us to do, namely bring his presence into the shared spaces of our collective life.”
In Sacks’ explanation is Maimonides’ final word of absolution: God wavers in regards to purity because of God’s love of sinners. Sages reflect the image of God in sacrificing virtue for the sake of love.
A look at leadership
Having confessed to being a hold-the-middle pastor, feel free to take with a grain of salt my own call for more “sage leadership” in the mainline church today. First of all, we have to wonder if prophetic extremism on the right and the left in the church is often a reflection of American culture rather than a witness to it. We live in a polarized age. Political parties are held hostage by ideological extremes: the right yielding little ground on the virtues of liberty and the free market and the left yielding little ground on the virtues of inclusion and diversity. Extremism is almost always defended with the language of virtue. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Barry Goldwater said.
Is the church reflecting America’s polarizing culture where the fabric of the country is torn apart in the defense of extremes that are cast as virtues?
Look within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Sticking with Maimonides’ definitions, here is what a saint might look like to some who are social conservatives. For a particular pastor, the 2014 vote of the General Assembly to allow same-sex marriage was the final straw. He decided it was time to take a stand as a matter of conscience. He preached bold sermons, withstood the scrutiny of presbytery and guided the congregation through a discernment process and to a vote to leave the denomination for another Presbyterian body. That many members of the church voted to remain in the PC(USA) and then left the church after the vote was taken doesn’t matter. Neither did it matter that studies show that on average congregational decline accelerates after departure. The minister will not waver in defense of his understanding of the authority of Scripture.
Here is what a saint might look like to some who call themselves progressives. A speaker at a national conference for ministers called the church to speak out for and offer sanctuary to those who have been harmed by white, male privilege until discrimination is eliminated. She urged more resolutions go before the General Assembly to issue apologies for past wrongs to those marginalized because of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture or economic class. She called for the church to take more stands on social issues to make clear that the church stands with Jesus in welcoming outsiders, the poor, the sick and the oppressed. The speaker knows that the church probably will lose members and money and ministers will lose jobs in being aggressive in taking these stands. Citing Phyllis Tickle’s theory of a scheduled 500-year reboot of the church, the speaker called ministers to boldly lead the church to its death, for from the blood of the martyred church will be reborn the true church of Jesus Christ.
My guess is that at least one of those saints does not look too saintly to the reader. As Luther demonstrated when he was unwavering in his defense of “Christ alone” in rejecting the Jews, one side’s saint can be another side’s villain.
Sages and saints of the church
The church needs the witness of saints and great sacrifices will be required of some of those coming into ministry. We should fear a church that preaches a milquetoast gospel that never challenges or offends. We need the inspiration of those who are so willing to draw the world’s attention to injustice that they put themselves at risk. Ministry should not be driven by anxiety or fear. Also, we are in mean and uncertain times when the world faces nuclear and environmental disaster and the justice and compassion of the gospel needs a strong witness.
But I worry that ministers sometimes hear a call for more than they can offer. I understand the appeal of martyrdom in a time of nationalism and extremism. In Luther’s day, “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” was incredibly influential with its countless stories of “saints” who took stands and lost their lives as results. He was not careful or fair with his facts, used hyperbole and was ideological in his choices of sinners and saints. Take a cheap shot and call what he did “Foxe News,” but then don’t forget that the tactic of over-exaggerating saints and villains was employed by all sides to recruit their future casualties.
I see ministers inspired by visions of unattainable ideals. (For those in one camp, will the whole world ever be talked into confessing Christ as Savior? For those in another camp, will discrimination ever be eliminated?) I see some get the sense that unless they are uncompromising in their service of whatever agenda has captured their minds and hearts, they have failed God. Some careers will be sacrificed. I hope we then don’t put their names in a book of those whose careers were sacrificed for God’s glory.
After ministers become disappointed with themselves, but before they become disillusioned, I’d like to get a word in: “Join the crowd!” In fact, “join the human race.” This is the way it is in a sinful world where all victories are proximate, all virtues are tied to vices and all saints are sinners.
If Maimonides is right, even in a time that needs a prophetic witness, the church still needs the leadership of those who hold the middle and patiently strive to move communities forward without leaving too many behind. We need to celebrate leaders who visit, organize, compromise and mediate, who listen with empathy, who are more steady than strident and who disappoint the extremes (and live with disappointment in themselves). Without these sages, there will be no church for the saints.
George C. Anderson has been the head of staff of Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, since 1998. He has given much of his ministry the last decade to helping create education events for ministers that teach the “sage skills” of leading churches. He is one of the designers and leaders of the [email protected] Conference to be held April 16-19.