Reformation Day is nothing to celebrate, according to some Christians. It marks the day Christianity was shattered into countless little sects. We need to find unity rather than revel in things that divide us. Luther’s breaking away from what was then one Church was a tragedy.
First of all, Luther didn’t break away from the Church. He was excommunicated! There is a big difference. Secondly, the Church did need reforming. Even the Church of Rome came to admit that, finally coming to grips with the financial and moral corruption that had become rife in late medieval Christianity. If there were no Reformation, there would have been no Counter-Reformation.
As for all of the subsequent church bodies, Paul McCain, in a Reformation Day meditation, offers a useful taxonomy:
Another point that confuses many people is the fact that there are so many different churches to choose from. It is an awful mess, so it seems. Yes, it can be confusing, but it really is not as complicated as some would think, or want to maintain. Up until the year 1054 there was basically one unified Christian church, distinct from a number of non-Christian or anti-Christian heretical groups. In 1054 the church divided into Eastern and Western Christianity. By the time of the late Middle Ages the Western Church, which had come to be known as the Roman Catholic Church, had reached a point of deep corruption, most importantly in what it believed, but also in the morals and life of the clergy and church leadership. In 1517 there began what we know today as the Reformation, when Martin Luther, a professor and monk in Wittenberg, Germany posted a series of “talking points” on the practice of selling “indulgences” by which people were led to believe they could buy forgiveness of sins, for their dead relatives in purgatory. A person has to decide is the Lutheran view of Christianity is correct, or the Roman Catholic view is correct.
After the Reformation, many groups developed from the teachings of persons other than Martin Luther, most notably, two men: Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who did much of his work in Geneva. These two men and their writings gave rise to many churches that can be traced back to and grouped under the general category of “Reformed” churches. In America in the 19th and 20th century there arose many splinter groups from Reformed churches, these would include “Charismatic” and “Pentecostal” groups, along with groups that rejected all denominations and became, in effect, a denomination of their own, the so-called “non-denominational” churches. And so the question then becomes, “Is Lutheran theology correct, or Reformed theology correct?” So, is it Rome or Wittenberg. If Wittenberg, then is it Geneva or Wittenberg?” Once those decisions are made, the myriad of denominations today makes a lot more sense.
But there is an additional challenge unique to our century and more so the past half-century. Today, despite all their denominational differences and historic confessions, the vast majority of Christian churches in Protestantism have been nearly overwhelmed by the rise of liberal Christianity. This unites them more so than any other feature of their confession of faith. Historic differences are no longer regarded as divisive since these divisions were based on one group’s understanding of the Biblical text as opposed to another group’s understanding of the Bible. For example, the difference between Lutheran and Reformed views of the Lord’s Supper are very important and based on very serious and clear differences in how the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper are understood. Liberalism however regards the words of Jesus in the Bible as unreliable. It teaches that we can not be sure that what is recorded in the Bible is true and accurate, therefore, there is no point in being “dogmatic” about much of anything having to do with the Bible. Modern liberalism has swept through all Christian denominations, Lutheran Reformed, Protestant and Roman Catholic.
So one must decide if Rome was right, or if Wittenberg was right? (Or, before that, I suppose, if Constantinople was right.) If Luther was right to post those theses, the next decision is whether Wittenberg or Geneva was right. And then, I suppose, a choice between a number of other places (Canterbury? New Bedford? Plymouth, Massachusetts? Upstate New York? Chicago? Azusa Street?)
But now EVERYBODY also must decide between conservative theology and the new (and unifying) liberal theology.