Reformation: 500 years young

Reformation: 500 years young October 30, 2017


Five hundred years later some Christians seem almost embarrassed about the Reformation. Not me. The Reformation must continue, as it still has work to do. It’s cry is essentially ‘back to the Bible’ and ‘away with man-made rules and traditions‘.  As such it is a cry that must be heard in every denomination, and every church, in every generation.

It is understood that it was the 31st October 1517 when the monk Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door and unleashed a revolution that continues to this day. These theses could each have been a tweet, and they were deliberately intended to spark a debate. They undermined the idea that the Pope was the sole source of authoritative teaching, and encouraged the ordinary man to re-examine official Church teachings. That idea still holds power today, and must continue to exert it’s effects.

Just as the printing press enabled the ideas of the Reformation to spread, so the Internet allows the Reformation to continue today. May articles such as this, and social media allow the great conversation to continue!

The glorious message of the Reformation is that the average Christian can and must examine the edicts and doctrines taught to them by their leaders by the Bible. In fact this concept was celebrated in the early church, and sadly lost somewhere as the church erected structures. If even the great Paul was to be examined by the Word, how much more your preaching?

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11, NIV)

Some Roman Catholics will, perhaps justly, criticise the Protestant church as having replaced one pope with thousands of mini-popes. In many congregations the word of one pastor is given almost as much authority as the Bishop of Rome is to the Catholics.  To the extent to which that is true, we have failed to fellow the spirit of the Reformation. For, whilst leadership is still important, no Christian should erect any pastor or preacher, no matter how ‘annointed’ or skilled in interpreting the Bible as their sole source of authority. We all, including our greatest leaders, stand under the Bible, not over it.

Its true that violence was one result with religious wars spanning hundreds of years. But that was not the intention of those who called for a simpler form of Christianity. And, yes the leaders of the Reformation were far from perfect. Some, like the anabaptists, who wanted to take things further than the new leadership wanted were brutally persecuted.

But the whole point of the Reformation is that it was a journey away from the darkness of the Middle Ages. It is all too easy for us to criticise those who took its baby steps as not going far enough. And as generation followed generation, there were more steps to come.

Reading the theses today it is clear that many of them have since been taken up even by the Roman Catholic Church: indulgences are no longer sold to release people from purgatory for example. It is no wonder that they seem antiquated. But the concept of re-examination they unleashed continued, and must continue today.

Church history post the Reformation is a story of gradual recovery of truths which had been lost. A series of movements arose, each of which was sadly often rejected by those who had come before, but each of which recovered something that would often eventually be adopted by many of those very groups that opposed them.

The Baptists were strongly persecuted, and now, whilst there are still paedobaptist churches, their argument that baptism is for those who profess personal faith has spread to many other groups. The Brethern proclaimed the Bible supported body ministry and multiple elders rather than a single pastor. And again, this was first opposed and then adopted by many congregations that never actually joined their movements.

The Charismatics and Pentecostals were another consciously reforming group who argued for a recovery of what they believe to be the Biblical doctrine of the Gifts of the Spirit. They also called for a revolution in worship. And whilst many churches stop short of embracing gifts today, the vibrant worship songs written by charismatics are broadly sung with arms raised and hands clapped. Perhaps the most famous Christian song of the last hundred years, In Christ Alone, was a collaboration where one half was charismatic. What a beautiful picture of unity it was that the other half of that collaboration was not a charismatic at all. In fact that song embodies the spirit of the Reformation in its words as well as its creation.

Why does the Reformation matter today? It matters today because 500 years ago everything changed. The priority of the Bible replaced the priority of church rulers in telling us what to think. It replaced middle-ages traditions with a desire to get back to ‘mere Christianity’ without all the trappings. Perhaps there still remains biblical truths that we are blind to, and that we need new Reformers to point out to us.

And, whilst at times, the cry of reformers divides the church, there is also a pull to unity around the book. We have learnt to grade doctrines as those which are central and essential, and those which we can agree to disagree on. Arguably the evangelical movement when understood right is nothing more than the heirs of the reformation. And yet the real strength of the Reformation is that it’s impact was felt not only by those who trumpeted it, but by those who opposed it.

Long live the Reformation!

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