On Tuesday, Protestants all over the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the movement that led many in the western world to break from the Catholic Church into what we now recognize as a variety of Protestant denominations (i.e. Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) and even non-denominational churches.
The enduring legacy of the Reformation is remarkable. As I’ve been reminding our church in Wednesday night Bible study, three of the things we communicate about Central Baptist on the front page of our website have their roots firmly planted in reformation theology.
For example, we acknowledge freedom of conscience when we “exhibit loving respect for the diverse opinions of individual members.” We honor the priesthood of all believers when we “embrace the belief that the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best study tools available to the individual.” And we uphold the autonomy of the local church when we proclaim that we are “autonomous, though affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
These principles—and others—have guided us well over the last 500 years and will carry us far into the future. But many believe that we are beginning to experience another grand re-ordering of the church—a new reformation.
The last reformation lasted 140 years. If we’re at the beginning of a new re-ordering—and I’m inclined to believe we are—it’s hard to know exactly where this new great shift will lead us in the decades to come. But there are some things we can learn from history to guide how we live as Christians in an age of transition.
Phyllis Tickle was one of the first Christian thinkers to suggest a new reformation as part of a natural 500-year cycle of renewal in the church. She spelled out her ideas in a book called The Great Emergence, taking her inspiration from Episcopal priest Mark Dyer.
Although we experience upheaval and change with anxiety and even vulnerability, Tickle’s vision of what is happening in the church and where we are headed is incredibly hopeful. She points to the previous reformation to guide how we might think about our current circumstance.
First, the previous reformation gave birth to a new expression of Christianity. The Protestant movement of the 16th century was new and exciting and unfamiliar. It was full of energy and youth. Martin Luther was 34 and John Calvin was 27 when they first took active roles in reform.
The Protestant Reformation represented a challenge to the established church. It drew people away from traditional church models and cast aside many traditions and practices that previous generations held dear. It was all the things that we associate negatively with new expressions of Christianity today—and we are its heirs.
We would do well to remember the conditions under which churches like ours were founded; and we would do even better to give new reformers the benefit of the doubt. We might even encourage them and cheer them on, even if we decide their particular flavor of reform is not for us.
Second, the previous reformation gave rise to much needed reforms in the institutional church. The Counter-Reformation was a movement of renewal in the Catholic Church brought on by the challenges of the Protestant reformers. Even if a break from the institutional church isn’t for us, the challenge of new reformers will sharpen our theology and keep us honest and focused on our mission.
We always need new reformers to remind us that our purpose isn’t self-preservation or even self-advancement. It is instead to announce and hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God by teaching others to obey the things that Jesus taught and by learning to obey them ourselves.
We should use the next great period of re-ordering to lead us back to our core principles.
Third, the previous reformation led to a tremendous spread in the reach of the gospel. As a result of the Reformation, the message of Christ was carried much farther than it ever had been before. New movements within God’s church reach people that existing movements don’t, and the energy they bring has the potential to carry God’s message to corners of our world that have yet to be reached.
As we stand at the beginning of a new period of reform, it’s hard to know what the future will look like, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the future church will look decidedly different from the church of the last several centuries.
Times of transition remind us that the church, as God’s chosen instrument for the advancement of the Kingdom, is far beyond our control. The sudden realization that we aren’t as in control of the church as we may have thought can leave us feeling vulnerable, anxious, and even hurt.
But in times of transition, there’s nothing more hopeful than the renewed realization that God IS in control—and that God’s kingdom even now is thriving and growing through holy processes of renewal that will carry it forward forever.
Thanks be to God.