Commercialism running amok in the Church

Did a church fund-raising scheme lead to the Protestant Reformation?

Money can distort Kingdom values and priorities

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." -- John 1:10-11

"Peter answered: 'May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!'" -- Acts 8:20

Week 17 (April/May)

Many people consider St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to be one of the most magnificent Christian church buildings in the world. The sanctuary is more than two football fields long. It has about 140,000 square feet of floor space. That is the size of 70 average houses in the USA.

The church's enormous size is not the only thing impressive about the building. Illustrious architects and artists are associated with it, Michelangelo among them. St. Peter's is noted for its fabulous works of art ranging from the brass central altar by Bernini to the marble Pieta statue by Michelangelo.

Unfortunately, in his zeal to complete the huge basilica, Pope Leo X relied on something that seems foreign to the spirit of Christ. Leo X used the sale of indulgences to raise a good deal of the money needed to construct that gigantic church building. In return for a monetary donation in someone's name, an official church letter would be issued saying that a pardon had been paid in for all that person's sins. Even people who had died and who were suffering in purgatory could be instantly freed if a living person paid for an indulgence in their name.

The pope had some salesmen who were really good at selling indulgences, including John Tetzel in Saxony (part of Germany). Tetzel had indulgence-selling down to an art. Included in his promotional schemes was a little jingle:

When a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

Tetzel's methods -- and, in fact, the whole practice of indulgence-selling itself -- would have brought down the wrath of Jesus as much as did the atmosphere of commercialism our Lord encountered in the Jerusalem Temple. Could one actually use money to obtain God's forgiveness?

As it was, these excesses of St. Peter's building committee so aroused the ire of a monk named Martin Luther that it brought on the Protestant Reformation. [ PowerPoint on Luther ]

Profiteering and commercialism can never be justified in the church just because they seem to be bringing about good ends. The laudable end of constructing a church building or of helping provide worshipers obtain the proper sacrificial animals does not, and cannot, justify questionable means to reach that end.

Of course, Jesus knew that the merchandisers in the Temple would probably be back. But at least he manages, in this dramatic episode, to point out to the people in Jerusalem the need for restoring purity to their worship.

Not long after His cleansing of the Temple, Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees. He responded by telling a story about some vineyard workers. These wicked men eventually killed the son of the vineyard's owner in an effort to grab the vineyard for themselves.

The vineyard workers represented religious leaders who wanted to take, take, take, and never give. Those religious leaders viewed the Temple almost as their own personal possession.

When Jesus began to challenge that view, He knew how they would react. When Jesus' claim to Sonship became clear to the religious leaders, they reacted by putting Him to death.

Jesus used the story of the vineyard to say that man's response to the Son is the key issue. The important thing is not how well the vineyard is kept. Instead, it is the response to the Owner's son that counts.

That same kind of challenge faces us today. Men still grasp after religious and materialistic security, forgetting that they are merely the workers in the vineyard and not its owners.

Let's be good stewards of those things God has temporarily placed in our hands. Let's also remember that we are only stewards. We are to be prepared at any moment to turn everything over to the Owner as an expression of His Lordship in our lives.

Discussion questions

  1. Why is it important to question the means by which laudable ends are achieved, particularly in the context of the church?
  2. How did one method of raising money for the Church spark the Protestant Reformation?
  3. How does Jesus' cleansing of the Temple illustrate the importance of restoring purity to worship and challenging religious leaders' view of the Temple?
  4. What are some things we can do to avoid falling prey to the temptation to prioritize materialistic and religious security over our ultimate responsibility to God?
  5. In what ways can recognizing that we are only temporary caretakers of resources help us be good stewards of the gifts God has given us?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It appeared in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes published by The Foundry.

Afterword: Historical Perspective on Indulgences

The granting and selling of indulgences refer to a practice that was historically associated with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly during the Middle Ages. Indulgences were believed to remit or reduce the temporal punishment due to sin, either for oneself or for someone who had already died and was undergoing purification in Purgatory.

Here's how it worked:

The selling of indulgences became a point of contention during the Protestant Reformation, as reformers like Martin Luther strongly criticized the practice. Luther's Ninety-five Theses, which he is said to have nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, famously protested against the sale of indulgences among other issues.

The Council of Trent, convened by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century as a response to the Reformation, addressed the abuse of indulgences and reaffirmed the doctrine but also implemented reforms to regulate their issuance and sale.

Today, while indulgences still exist in Roman Catholic theology, the practice of selling them as it was done in the past has been abolished, and indulgences are now granted under specific conditions and with spiritual, rather than monetary, intentions.

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