There are a lot of moments in history that have been held dear as the most momentous points of innovation in our world – everything from the invention of water closets through the development of assembly lines to the magic that emerged from the labs of Nikola Tesla.
I am grateful for all of those. But for me, perhaps the most important point in history over the past millennium is clear – the Protestant Reformation. I look at the past and my heart is lifted by the courage and bravery of the original Martin Luther, in staring down the political and religious might of the papacy those five hundred years and releasing religion from the shackles of those who insisted that men could stand in for God, and denied everyday people the knowledge that they could always reach for God themselves.
Everything we have today in religion – denominations, attacks on handful dogma, freedom of religious thought and expression and the recognised power of giving people access to knowledge for themselves – find root in those decades of glorious resistance.
Unfortunately, it can seem like no victory was won in the twin miracles of the Reformation and the Enlightenment when you look at the part of world where I am from – Nigeria, and with it Africa, where mindless religion continues to take hold over the hearts, minds and spirits of hundreds of millions, imprisoning them in fear and tradition.
Being myself an escapee from the dungeons of toxic religion, I had also once joined the rank of the despairing, wondering how it can be that with all the huge progress humanity has made in expanding thought and figuring out reality, Nigeria remains today as Europe was in the 1500s.
But then the more I paid attention, the less I despaired because I began to see signs of hope.
One of those signs was the robust set of questions a generation of believers began to ask through articles, on social media, and even – where it was allowed – to people in the pulpit. The things we were told no longer made sense if anything they led to desperate unhappiness and meaninglessness. People were told for too long that if they did X and X, prosperity and good health will follow, and that is just not happening. So the questions have become louder.
A new generation of preachers had also begun to give bold, new answers to these questions; diverging as far as they could from defective theology even if only so far that they would not be tagged apostates.
All of these small, gathering activity culminated in a big explosion last year when radio presenter Daddy Freeze inaugurated and prosecuted a full-scale war against Pentecostal teaching on tithing, which has been used for too long to intimidate, manipulate and coerce church members. Suddenly, from the mouth of this ‘heathen’ (who actually happens, himself, to be a committed follower of Christ) people began to notice that the things that their pastors have been telling them don’t cohere with the things that their bibles actually say.
The church pushed back. From the pastor of our largest congregation to the one who was caught sending sexual messages to a woman who was not his wife while preaching against adultery, they all pushed back – with venom and without charity – on Daddy Freeze. The coordinated attacks failed, the debates across social media continued, and people began to assert themselves in accordance with scripture, even when one of these pastors was caught on video saying those who don’t pay tithes will go to hell. He was wrong. Utterly wrong. So wrong that if he was in another profession, where standards matter, he would have been ridiculed and defrocked.
Because of Freeze (who is generally problematic on issues like gender, sexuality and politics) pastors across Nigeria were compelled to hold teaching sessions about tithing, and to free their members from the bondage of fear, by conceding that ‘yes, tithing is not compulsory, and it has nothing to do with Christian salvation or even Christian blessings’.
He is not the only one. In a major speech last year, for instance, I was very vocal about the traditional interpretations of the bible on gender and sexuality. As I have seen many others question teachings on giving, teachings on marriage (one famous pastor, coming onto social media to preach the lie that Christians need ‘white’ weddings was quickly silenced), on politics and more and then offer a variety of interpretations.
I don’t agree with many of them, as it turns out that Daddy Freeze doesn’t agree with me, but that’s irrelevant. The debate in the church is as old as that between the bible’s Peter and Paul, and as long as there is love, charity and a purpose only to draw people closer to God, God invites us all to conversations with each other and with God.
Above all, what all these movements are pointing towards is that people must stop relying on pastors as a conduit between them and God. They have full access to God, this very minute – as far as the Bible teaches – if they would only take on the duty of thinking and speaking for themselves.
“You will seek me and find me,” Jeremiah 29:13 reminds you, “If you search for me with all your heart.”
501 years ago, the irrepressible Martin Luther stared down the institutions of the papacy and, at risk to his very life and his reputation, challenged the doctrine of his time everywhere from the place of works versus faith to the place of money in the church.
It is because he won that victory that I am able to be a tongues speaking, church-working, bible-toting Christian today.
There is a New Reformation happening across the world today, however. It may not be as dramatic and concentrated as the one this former priest precipitated in Germany those many years ago, but it will have the same effect of dramatically freeing and empowering the hearts and minds of plenty believers.
May the courage of those who have chosen to ask the right questions, and live with courage continue to light the fires in the hearts and spirits of many to search for God, for themselves, in humility, spirit and truth.
*Jideonwo is a storyteller, using the research and evidence on human flourishing to inspire new narratives about politics, markets, faith, identity and society in Africa. He runs two daily newsletters via TheDailyVulnerable.com and RetailChristianity.com
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