How Lutherans Blew It
and How We Might Recover

The Reformation paved the road for modern thinking. People who know little about Martin Luther or Christianity benefit from ideas that gained a foothold during the reforming upheaval of the sixteenth century.

Luther lived in an age where the Church was one of few influential institutions. His ideas, planted for the sake of religion, crept into government.

  • Luther insisted the message of the Church is for all people. Today, we recognize that education is for everyone.
  • Luther taught the skills of all contribute equally to a successful society. Priests, nuns and monks do not outrank the people they serve. Neither do royalty, presidents and prime ministers. People should have a say in choosing leaders. Leaders are accountable to the people.
  • Luther used the language of the people, which demystified religion. This translates to today's emphasis on transparency in leadership.
  • Luther taught that work, work, work alone will not protect us. The character of the individual plays a big role. From this concept came the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Luther looked to scripture as the only authority. The ability to challenge ruling authority contributed to the modern legal system.​

During the last 30 or 50 years—Lutherans compromised our founding beliefs in order to gain status among other denominations.

This is sad. We had a lot going for us.​


A new idea with Lutheran roots.​

  • We preach the priesthood of all believers. A definite plus!
  • We put land and asset management in the hands of the individual churches. This supported the belief in priesthood of all believers. Congregations could leverage their assets to shape unique ministries without outside approval.
  • We limited the authority of pastors and regional and national leaders. We didn’t even use the word “bishop” until the late 1980s. At the time, cautious Lutherans were assured it wouldn't change our view of leadership. It would only give our leaders greater standing in ecumenical dialog. 

Wrong on both counts!​

The seed of the idea is there in the constitutionally stated interdependence of church wide, regional, and local congregations. But we failed to define what this means and the noble concept has never been put into action.

But today, something is happening. The ideas that shaped the Reformation, the ideas that we abandoned for momentary convenience, are taking hold in our culture.

I just felt a shiver of hope.

The Rise of Holacracy

I've called what must happen for the Church to be influential in the modern world The Horizontal Church. I like that term. I've written several posts spanning a few years on the concept. The word "horizontal" juxtaposed with the concept of “vertical” church hierarchy speaks volumes with little explanation needed.

But I'll abandon that term—at least for the moment. ​

The business world uses the term “holacracy.”​

The ideas of holacracy can be found in the teachings of Martin Luther. They are just a bit more codified.

Ironically, holacracy started nearby. While we were sitting in courtrooms across Philadelphia from 2007-2014, Brian Robertson of Ternary Software Company in Exton, Pennsylvania, restructured his company along more democratic ideas in 2007 and drafted the Holacracy Constitution in 2010. 

His ideas for reorganizing business have spread to at least seven continents and are now becoming a consulting niche for those fortunate enough to have been involved in the early implementation.​

What Can the Church Learn from Holacracy?

Holacracy in a nutshell.

  1. Increased transparency
  2. Distributed authority
  3. The ability to allow organizations to evolve from its original vision.

Robertson explains, “Holacracy is not a governance process ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’—it’s governance of the organization, through the people, for the purpose.”

A key question is “How are we working together?” The answers allow for creative tension and disruptive innovation.

The theories and practices revolve around the concept of purpose driving decisions. In a sense the modern trend in the Church toward developing mission statements fits right in—if we don't view our mission statements as etched in stone. That's always a temptation.

It is easily argued that the Church has a pre-ordained stated purpose—to make Christ known. But the details of that directive hold infinite possibilities.

We have become dependent on a structure that is now crippling congregations. It is expensive and turning the Church into a place for only the rich. It is inflexible. We are dependent on clergy—and clergy can do only so much. When clergy fail, we turn to consultants—free-agent clergy. Only the richest churches can afford consultants so the solutions they offer have limited practicality or effect.

In coming posts, I'm going to explore the concepts of holacracy and how adopting its principles (Lutheran as they are) might give all churches a new sense of mission.​

Making this change in thinking is not going to be easy. It may be impossible to overcome 2000 years of vertical thinking. But the current course of even the most successful churches is doomed to failure if we don't try.

As these ideas continue to take hold, the people we hope to reach will expect us to behave with these very Christian ideals.​ They will have learned them at work.