Your Spiritual Growth has a Price Tag

Spiritual profiteering has never been an ethical business, but at least it used to be an honest one.

I grew up believing that the Reformation was Martin Luther's crusade for the gospel against the extrabiblical theology of the Roman Catholic Church. I had no idea that he never intended to start a revolution or that his 95 Theses were actually titled "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences." In fact, all I knew about indulgences were that they were some Catholic perversion involving the sale of salvation. But the more I've learned about this period, the more I've realized that Protestants never rid themselves of indulgences; they merely redressed them in modern cloths.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven." Or simply, medieval indulgences were a way of commuting penance through payment. You could pay a fine instead of doing the time--not for you sin's absolution but for its punishment. They had nothing to do with forgiveness or salvation.

The corruption of the system came when indulgences could be purchased for the deceased to ensure their salvation. This was Martin Luther's primary complaint as exemplified by his accusation that Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, often preached, "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." And the fact that the church's greed had come to overshadow the original purpose of indulgences is made clear by Luther's 32nd thesis:
All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
The more that people bought indulgences, Luther contended, the more they became weary of paying the due penalties of their sins. Love for one another had grown cold in favor of the love of money and the things it could buy. Every record could be expunged and every relationship reconciled with enough money. It was a system that mechanized the royal law of love to the point where community within the church was dependent on wealth.

But just as medieval indulgences monetized penance, so modern indulgences have monetized discipleship.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Protestantism has instituted some formal system like the imperial Christianity of old (we're much too disunified to accomplish anything like that). Rather, I think the influence of capitalism on American Protestantism has made discipleship a product from which to be profited.

Think of all of the curricula your church uses: from children's ministries to youth ministries to young adult and singles ministries to married, parenting, men's and women's, and seniors ministries. There's a workbook and accompanying DVD for every possible situation in life. Some pastors have even taken their sermon series and turned them into books and small group studies to compensate for what, I can only imagine, must be your church's spiritual deficiencies.

That's not to say that I condone muzzling the ox or that pastors and teachers are not allowed to enjoy the fruits of a successful ministry. But there is a difference between muzzling the ox and fattening the ox. And as beneficial as I'm sure many Christian resources are, there must be a difference between making disciples and selling discipleship materials.

Discipleship is a matter of investing in the right mentors, not the right products, and the investment is not one of money but of time. As the church, we're meant to be a family so intimate that we know how to spur each other toward the love and good deeds that identify us as followers of Christ. Sadly, the Protestant church today resembles the father who teaches his son how to play baseball by handing him a book. And like the parents who turn over their children's spiritual education to their churches, so many pastors have turned over their flock's spiritual edification to impersonal homework assignments.

Some people like those assignments and some pastors have seen genuine growth through them, so I can't dismiss discipleship materials completely. But, generally speaking, like medieval indulgences moved from voluntary to obligatory, so modern indulgences have moved from supplementary to sufficient. Where once our love was shallow for each other in reconciliation, our love now lacks depth in discipleship. And it's only a matter of time before sanctification is determined by the number of DFD's attended just like salvation came to be settled by the sale of indulgences.

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