The Universal Church is in a major period of change. The Church is finding healthy roots in the Global South and the Mainline denominations are having trouble keeping up. In America, Baptists hold a majority of power – both in the Church and in government. The Church is struggling to find itself in the new century.
It seems that the Church has been here before. Each time, the Church at the crossroads has found a way forward. The last major division sparked the Protestant Reformation. We may be at a similar crossroad – there are people who see the inconsistencies in the beliefs of the Church (orthodoxy) with the practice of the Church (orthopraxy).
As I start to close out my time in seminary, I have been wondering: can the Church be reformed from the inside?
The Moravian Church (also known as the Unity of the Brethren) was a sect of Christians in the 15th century led by Jan Hus in what is now the Czech Republic. They are one of the oldest Protestant denominations and have a remarkable fingerprint on American Christianity.
Hus saw flaws in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the veneration of saints, use of icons, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. He wanted to focus on scripture and call into question the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. While his ideas were important to the Protestant movement a century later (and more), he was eventually excommunicated by the Roman Church and burned at the stake.
Luther and the Protestant Reformation
The most well known Reformer is Martin Luther. He was a Catholic priest and theologian. However, he also found issues with the Roman Catholic Church that needed to be changed. Perhaps most well known is his Ninety-five Thesis, which questioned the Church’s practice of indulgences. Even though his goal was to reform the practices of the Church, he was also excommunicated and would start what is now the Lutheran denomination.
Luther was an Augustinian friar, or of the order of St. Augustine. This particular order within the Roman Catholic Church focuses on pastoral work and living in the community. Luther saw the damage that indulgences caused to the townspeople and was motivated to reform the Church. Rather than reform, he was forced to splinter off.
John Wesley was not interested in creating a new Protestant denomination. As an ordained minister in the Church of England, he saw the Church as a stale and cold institution. His missionary work in the Colonies, and his interaction with Moravian missionaries, brought about his ‘heart warming’ experience.
Wesley wanted to create an order with the Anglican Church that was in line with the Early Church. He focused on the close community of believers and evangelism to the common people. While in community, he began to train the laypeople to be able to also preach and teach, giving voices to those who were part of the community already.
Wesley did not want to eliminate the Anglican Church, but rather create a zealous community within. While his work was full of controversy, one of the contributing factors to the Methodist denominations breaking from the Anglican Church was the lack of influence in the Colonies.
Can the Church be reformed?
It seems that most of the reformers in Church history end up excommunicated or dead. I’ve looked at three here, but there are so many different reformers throughout history. I’ve written about Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Movement, but there are too many to fit into a single article.
The closest I think we can find are the orders of the Roman Catholic Church. This article is a great primer on the seven orders of the Catholic Church. Maybe one day I’ll do my own deep dive, but for now, we’ll go on this work. What is interesting with these orders is that they take the entire Roman Catholic Church and focus on certain aspects of the teachings. But they don’t reform the Church, just prioritize certain elements.
Can the Church be reformed from the inside? I don’t know. I do know that reform outside the Church is highly unlikely. When someone from outside starts crying against the Church, we circle the wagons and double down. We see that happening in America with the Souther Baptist Convention and other conservative denominations. If we want to see the Church fulfill the mission we were given, we must all do our part. It is our job to make our local church look like Jesus.