The pain of the improving Church

bonetexture

In few respects [did Protestantism differ from Catholicism] more than in its establishment of the principle of an ongoing reformation. While most of the Reformers, once established, tended practically to resist extensions of reformation that would jeopardize their status and definition, almost all Protestants, at least nominally, assented to the idea that “ecclesia reformatat semper reformanda”–i.e., that the church was always reformed and always in need of further reformation. The Protestant movement, then, was conceived as an unfinished product, constantly to be judged by a reading of the Bible, its polity continually subject to debate, its policy open to ongoing appraisal and change. — “The Ongoing Reformation of the Church,” History of Protestantism entry, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974 edition.

The gay issue is proving to be as divisive to the church as any other single issue in the history of Christianity. I find it comforting to know that we’re supposed to change, that we’re supposed to rethink, reassess, reconsider. I’m encouraged that the founders of the system of theology to which I subscribe conceived of that system as an “unfinished product,” and that they believed the church was “always in need of further reformation.”

They trusted the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would return to further guide and teach each and every one of us.

As hard as the struggle can sometimes be, we can rest assured that we are, day by day and step by step, becoming a better church.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://skerrib.blogspot.com Skerrib

    Yeah, I find it comforting too. But only when I don't mind the change–when I want things to stay the same I think it's a bunch of crap. ;)

    • StraightGrandmother

      I bet you do, LOL!

  • http://www.sheppardministries.com Greta Sheppard

    Right on, John! Good blog! Just as we need to de-program our own lives at times, letting go of superficial daily habits, so must the church look at it's own programs of busyness (which is not a sign of fruitfulness) and get into hearing what God is saying to His Church. (not necessarily what the home-grown experts are saying!) Transformation always involves change. Trouble is it threatens our comfort zone. He that has an ear to hear, let him hear . . . !

    Greta

  • Sabina

    I recently left the church I was attending because I realized that there was no change and the stagnation was killing my spirit and my spiritual gifts were being shelved. As an individual and a christian and a person of faith I grew up believing that we are all of value and that God wouldn't make different people if He wanted us all to be the same. I am very creative and I take time to study and get a good understanding of the bible-I was the youth director and sunday school teacher. The problem was that this church did not want to accept that the kids we were serving were in desperate situations during the week and that church should have been a haven for them and a place where the could get answers about where God is in the midst of their struggles-I wanted to help them figure this out but was firmly put in my place to teach: the ten commandments, books of the bible……this was very frustrating for me and the kids. So yes the church should be "open to ongoing appraisal and change.” There is no other way to be sure that the congregation's needs are being met and that's the point right? Fellowshipping, being supportive of one another, celebrating and getting to know God and Christ together? I miss teaching those kids but I missed my spiritual gifts more and they were being stiffled there. The really discouraging part too was that the leadership is just in their early 40's.

    P. S. I enjoy your blogs, even the dinner preparation one-keep sharing John-its encouraging.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Skerrib: Yeah, that's how it is, isn't it? Exactly!

    Greta: It's clear what a GOOD preacher you must be!

    Sabina: Yikes. How … awful. That's so obnoxious. I left it unemphasized because who needs that kind of trouble, but I was wondering who might resonate with the part of the Britannica quote that goes, "While most of the Reformers, once established, tended practically to resist extensions of reformation that would jeopardize their status and definition…" Sound like you were dealing with those kinds of leaders. Who never, EVER really lead, but only rabidly follow.

  • Hjordes

    Huh. I didn't know that. *makes note to self to learn Latin*

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    I actually took two or three years of Latin in high school. The classes I took in Latin were, in fact, the LAST high school Latin classes being offered anywhere in California–and, I believe, in the nation. Like, I was one of the LAST high school kids in the country to take a Latin class. Our teacher, Mrs. Allen, was OLD. Like, Latin Was Her First Language old.

    I loved and respected her. And never showed it, of course. I just sat in the back of the class, talked too much, and cheated my way through her tests. Awful. (Actually, I DID learn a fair amount of Latin. I actually kind of liked it. Kind of. As much as any teenager can possibly like LEARNING, of all things.)

    • Mary

      6 years of Latin here. Oh, and God also gives me great thrift shop finds.

  • Angela

    Good thoughts. Change can be a great thing, but can also be very scary for some, especially if it goes against long-standing beliefs and traditions. In our church, we tend not to make changes that might disturb the "older" folks. This is quite stifling for the younger folks and for us "oldies" who would welcome some of the changes (like contemporary praise and worship music. It doesn't have to replace the traditional hymns, and it doesn't have to be raucous. And why isn't it okay for those who are willing to play guitars and use hand-held percussion instruments?)

    In our church, according to our website, we also believe that speaking in tongues was a spiritual gift reserved for the early church. My pastor says that's because he doesn't see people being saved by it anymore as recorded in the book of Acts. Huh? We had a missionary come to our church who stated that it seems to be the Pentacostals who are making the most headway in evangelism overseas. Any correlation there?

    Anyway, is it better to leave a church or to stick it out and pray for change? We were in our previous church for 13 years. We came to this one because of the mix of music and the great, biblical teaching (sans the tongues issue). I don't want to be a church hopper, but I long to be in fellowship with like-minded people.

    So, John, there are a few ideas here for future blogs. When you feel the urge to emulate Emeril again, let me know; I've got some more questions for you!

  • Jan P. Dennis

    John – A fine post. If I may, I'd like to address this question from a Catholic perspective. Catholics agree that the "church was always reformed and in need of further reformation." The difference between us and Protestants is about what we think can and cannot be reformed. All Catholics and probably the vast majority of Protestants agree that some things are not reformable, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus' two natures (divine and human). All Catholics and most Protestants would agree that the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is not reformable. There would also be agreement that Christ's death is an atonement for sin, and that salvation comes to humans as a result of their faith that Christ's death reconciles them to God the Father. There would further be general agreement on such things as Heaven and Hell, the Last Judgment, and the Second Coming.

    The biggest areas of disagreement about the reformability of the faith have to do with the structure of the church and its worship. Catholics believe the church's structure–the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, the primacy of Peter and his successors (i.e., the office of the papacy), the teaching authority of the magisterium, the keys, the forgiveness of sins, the apostolic succession–is not reformable, because it was part of the original deposit of Christ and the apostles. For Catholics, the structure of the church is not reformable. Protestants, on the other hand, regard the church's structure, which they generally call its polity, as "continually subject to debate." That is why Protestants have a wide variety of church forms or structures, and Catholics have only one.

    In the area of worship, Catholics believe the church is essentially Eucharistic. This view is based on the institution of the Eucharist at The Last Supper recorded in the synoptic gospels, on 1 Corinthians 11, and the book of Hebrews. Moreover, from the earliest sub-apostolic writings (the letters of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch around A.D. 100) and the account of Justin Martyr about A.D. 150, there is a universal witness to the church's Eucharistic form and no written record of the church being anything but Eucharistic in its worship. For Catholics, Eucharistic worship is also not something that is subject to change or reformation, at least in its essence. (Things such as whether the Eucharist is in Latin or the vernacular or whether communion is under one or two kinds are not understood as part of the essence of worship; thus Vatican II is not seen to have changed anything essential about the Eucharist.) Most importantly, in Catholic self-understanding the church had a life together, a form of worship, and a form of ministry that preceded theological reflection about these elements of its being. In other words, the Catholic Church is pre-theological. For Protestants, the church is post-theological. In other words, Protestants developed a theology and then constructed a form of worship. For Catholics, worship and ministry are givens (from Christ through the apostles, preserved and handed down through the ages). For Protestants, worship and ministry are constructs based on theological conclusions.

    As regards such things as how priests are made bishops, celibate or married clergy, the role of the church in secular society, and other practices and policies, Catholics regard such things as not part of the original deposit of faith, and therefore reformable.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    The great Jan P. Dennis, everyone. Thanks, Jan. This is really enlightening stuff.

  • http://themorsecode.blogspot.com Morse

    C'mon…say it…you know you want to say it…the church has to EVOLVE!!!!!!

    [Insert evil, Dr. Frankenstein-like laugh.]

    Sorry…I don't know what just came over me. ;)

  • http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com Rachelle

    Wow — didn't check in expecting such profound lessons today but I sure got them! Thanks John and Jan and everyone else!

  • Sam Adams

    I join with all the other pats on the back. But then, too, who's doing the reforming these days? and why?

    I'm currently reading "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis, probably one of the last of my generation to do so (I'm 46), and favor his argument that there is a "Mere Christianity."

    He uses the illustration that Mere Christianity is like a great hallway with doors leading off into several rooms, the rooms being various denominations.

    My hope is that none of the doors are barred from the inside.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Angela: Of course, feel free to ask many any Emeril-type question you’d like.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Morse: Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy. (This quote, which is from the great movie “Buckaroo Bonazai,” cracks me up every time I get a get a chance to use it. So no offense PERSONALLY, Morse: it’s just that I so RARELY get such a sweet opportunity to say that. But seriously: If you can, right before you die, try to get your hand on a bag of marshmallows. Who knows WHAT kind of food they’re likely to serve in hell?

    Rachelle: Jan Dennis has a mind like Disney has a park. Whereas I am known in any number of circles as someone who can pretty effectively type out something he’s reading. I think it amounts to about the same thing, don’t you?

    • Carmen

      "Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy" was a line right out of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; I don't remember hearing it in Buckaroo Bonzai, but I could be wrong.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        Yes, it was the signature thing in "BB" that the character played by Lithgow kept saying. Awesome stuff, that. Guy's a genius.

  • http://themorsecode.blogspot.com Morse

    Hey, I don’t mind being called ‘Monkey Boy’. Just don’t get angry when you get banana in your eye!

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Have you ever seen that video where Famous Christian Evangelist Ray Comfort uses a banana to demonstrate the glory of God’s work? Wait. Never mind. NEVER MIND!!

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    I think I may have been the one who told YOU about that video, John.

    Besides, I loved the one word response a lot of nutritionists gave to that video…COCONUT!

  • Hjordes

    Jan P. Dennis – Excellent information. It clarified many details that I didn't understand. Thank-you!

  • Jan P. Dennis

    You’re welcome! If you have any other questions, feel free to email me: jpdennislit@msn.com. All blessings

  • Matthew mcqueen

    The foundations of the protestant church get re-laid about every generation or so. Who knows what it will look like in fifty years?

    But you can look at the Orthodox church (and the Catholic church) and see unbroken succesion since the time of the Apostles.

    A constant reformation is just no good.

  • http://skerrib.blogspot.com Skerrib

    I dunno Matthew, I'm not sure that either way has to be 'no good' I mean, the whole point is our relationship and communion with God, right? Since all of us are unique, and times and cultures are variable, maybe it's OK that how "the Church" (ie body of Christ) does "church" (worship and fellowship) varies as well…those who are moved by the Orthodox practices and traditions will do well to stay where they relate to God best. For others it leads to stagnation and mindless, ritualistic repetition, so they really should go elsewhere.

    Oh, I've got standards…the Bible has to be central to the teaching, and there can't be any namby-pamby whitewashing there. Man's sin, Christ's redemption of us, all that. But I don't think questioning and re-shaping, in and of itself, is necessarily a bad thing.

    God is God–he doesn't change. Everything else…just does.

  • Jessica

    Wow, this is way over my head, but here goes. My husband and I were just talking last night about how we hope we never say, "I'll always believe this one way and nobody can change my mind". Really, when you think about it, why would you do that? Why not shove all of your ideas out into the marketplace and let them be tried and tested? Then again, like I said, this is way over my head!

  • http://andthewordbecamestardust.wordpress.com John Z

    It's true, but we have to keep in mind that the reforming that the church does is because as sinners we stray away from the Christ presented to us in the Scriptures and we reform to get ourselves back to the message of the Scriptures. Some churches (in the name of "reform") have decided to re-interpret the words of the Bible in such a way as to render it irrelevant and make ourselves the arbiters of what is meet, right, and salutary.

    • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

      Yeah, I mean … I’m sure nobody wants “keep reforming” to mean “get worse.”

  • Kelly

    As others before me have noted – thanks for the informative commentary, Jan P. Dennis! And thanks to all commenters for such spirited discussion.

    "Go and make disciples of all nations…" that verse somewhat fits constant reformation, in my opinion. As humans evolve (or even devolve) within and throughout different countries, cultures, beliefs systems, and institutional structures around the world, we need constantly develop new ways to reach people. This process might involve anything from Bibles in new languages, to basic-needs missions, to modifying church structures to ensure we welcome all in Love. They tricky part is more a "be in the world, but not of the world" thing, isn't it? I'm sure every church will make mistakes in the process, but forgiveness is always there. Here's a quick prayer that church reformation decisions are based on God's will, not selfish will. :)

  • Chellee

    I think true wisdom and true maturity allows for re-thinking issues. For the rest of our LIVES we are to be changing and growing. Doesn't Proverbs say we can be "fruitful vines" to the end of our days??? I certainly want to be….and that implies growth. And all that allows for growth.

    "The wisdom that is from above is first pure then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy." James 4:17.

    I see these attributes in your writings, John. And I'm happy to be part of your band. This is a world I'm getting more and more sucked into. Look what you did. Now I'm an addict! ;)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2010/10/06/about-lgbt-folk-ill-listen-to-my-god-thanks/#comments slick

    John said, “This morning I was reading about the history of Protestantism in my 1974 edition of the ever-awesome Encyclopedia Britannica (that I bought in a thrift store about 10 years ago for $20 because God loves me).”

    Soooo funny! And yes God does love you, so it’s soooo true as well.

  • http://johnjackman.com John Jackman

    My friend Dr. Craig Atwood’s book on the history of the Reformation is titled “Always Reforming.” When we stop reforming, we die.

  • Pingback: Has the reformation stopped? – Lesbians, God and Other Curiosities


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