500 years later – a new reformation

This post is a revised version of my 2014 post The new Reformation.

Martin Luther with iPhone

Martin Luther is examined for heresy.

500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, and, it is often said, began the Protestant Reformation.

40 years ago I came to the conclusion that the church in the western world was, in the next few decades, going to go through changes as significant as the Reformation. I felt we had moved away from the truth in several important areas – inward looking and hierarchical churches with structures that hinder rather than help the mission of Jesus, dead orthodoxy in many christians’ lives (including me), and failing to heed Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, acceptance and the perils of wealth – and God surely wouldn’t allow this to continue unchecked.

I think we are now in the middle of this new reformation, and here are some of the signs I see.

Past

Things are always changing, but change seemed to speed up after World War 2, with the following being prominent:

The end of Christendom

Christianity began as a despised minority movement, but when it was recognised and promoted by Roman Emperor Constantine, that all changed. The church became politically and culturally powerful, and shaped western culture for 1700 years. But that influence began to wane in the 20th century, and Christendom is now gone almost everywhere, and is disappearing in the US too.

Thoughtful christians generally welcome its going, believing Christendom corrupted the church. This is an enormous change and many christians are still unaware or lamenting it.

The charismatic renewal

God’s gift to a deadish church, even if we did sometimes abuse the gift. It led to enormous changes – freedom from dead orthodoxy for many, the proliferation of independent charismatic churches (not always good!), a vast improvement in church music (if you think things aren’t good now, you should know they were generally worse then) and the greater acceptance and use of the gifts of the Spirit.

Breaking down denomination barriers

Families could easily be born into, grow up and die in the same denomination, and the different denominations often didn’t work together all that much. That has changed a lot, especially among those under 40.

Also around the 1970s, dissatisfaction with denominational church grew, and the house church movement began to gain adherents.

Renewed world awareness

Christians had long been at the forefront of bringing education and medicine to impoverished countries, but after WW2 there was greater awareness of wealth and other inequality and environmental issues. Christian aid and development organisations were established (e.g. World Vision in 1950 and TEAR in 1968).

Present

The church in the English speaking world is in the middle of huge change. I’m not sure if I agree with them all, but they’re happening whether we like it or not.

Thinking differently about the Bible

The Bible used to have unquestioned authority among all but scholars and very liberal christians, and many believed it is inerrant. But even strong evangelicals are now reconsidering because the Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant and many parts of the Old Testament seem to be legendary, for example:

  • evolution has challenged a literal interpretation of Genesis;
  • God’s Old Testament commands to kill whole tribes are hard to believe;
  • archaeology and historical study have questioned a literal interpretation of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan; and
  • there are other apparent discrepancies in accounts in both Testaments.

Martin Luther in baseball cap

So it appears to many that the Bible is inspired by God and teaches us what we need to know, but is a very human book – both human and divine. I think this has been a most significant change, and it is still in progress, with some conservative christians fighting what I believe will be an ineffectual battle against change.

Many christians are now taking more notice of historical scholarship, especially about Jesus. This has led to new understandings of Jesus’ teachings and some long-held christian doctrines.

Re-examining key doctrines

Many christians no longer believe in a hell where unbelievers are punished forever, and many are wondering whether eventually all people will be “saved”. The penal substitutionary atonement is also under serious fire, from scholars and laypeople alike, and other views on the atonement are coming back into vogue.

The definition of the ‘gospel’ itself is now under review, and many christians are coming to see the good news in terms of the kingdom and mission of God to the whole world, and not just in terms of sin and salvation. While most christians still see Jesus as uniquely revealing God, there is a greater inclusiveness towards people of other religions.

Let Jesus interpret the Bible to us

There are many tricky passages in the Bible, and some widely varying interpretations of key concepts. Although the reformers stood for sola scriptura, it was never really true – reformed churches, just like most other churches, tend to view the Bible through the lens of their own doctrinal statements. It is a poor way to treat the scriptures and the God who gave them to us.

Allowing the Holy Spirit to interpret scriptures to us is surely more Biblical and better. And one of the ways the Spirit will lead us is through the teachings of Jesus. Christians believe Jesus is the most complete revelation of God we can possibly have, so any interpretation or understanding that is contrary to Jesus must be viewed with suspicion.

This Anabaptist distinctive is gaining traction, especially among younger christians who aren’t interested in doctrinal and denominational wars.

Re-examining key practices

Gender equality is well on the way, and only the most conservative of younger generations now hold to the old ‘complementarian’ view. Christians attitudes to gays are also being re-examined. At the very least, younger christians are showing broad acceptance of secular gay marriage and repentance about past mistreatment of LGBTI people. Whether complete acceptance of LGBTI lifestyles will, and should, also follow is not so easy to discern.

Evangelism is also under scrutiny. The old way of stressing sin and the differences between belief and unbelief are giving way to a more inclusive approach that welcomes people into friendship and community and allows the Holy Spirit to work at his own pace.

Politics and social justice

Christians have tended to the right in politics, but this too is changing. Many christians now see the left side of politics as being closer to the radical teachings of Jesus.

As a result, ordinary christians are becoming more concerned about, and often opposed to, many aspects of modern first world culture, including over-consumption, inaction on climate change, treatment of first peoples, creation care, war and resolution of conflict by force.

Child abuse and profligate televangelists

The scandal of child abuse, especially in the Catholic Church, and the excesses of US Protestant televangelists, have deeply harmed christianity’s image and credibility. The self-serving response of many sections of the Catholic Church has done even greater harm. Part of the new Reformation is ensuring that these abuses are prevented, or at least dealt with quickly and compassionately.

Exiles

As a result of many of the above issues, large numbers of people have left the church – some becoming non-believers and others being ‘exiled’ believers. We can expect the growth of ‘simple churches’ to continue.

Future

There are a number of issues that I believe still need to be addressed by the western church.

Giving up privilege

Most of us in the west are among the richest people in the world. And we consume like rich people, so that numerous earths would be required if all the world used the same amount of resources. Our consumption is contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and supports inequitable trade, working practices and even slavery in third world countries.

This cannot continue. God isn’t honoured while our brothers and sisters in less privileged countries suffer.

Servant leadership

Jesus was a servant leader, and christians are called to follow him. All of us are given gifts, and dominance by the few clergy is an abuse of power, a cop out by the laypeople and an inefficient way to do things. Presidential leadership in churches must go.

Looking outwards

For too long, western christians have sat passively in pews letting the professional clergy lull them into passivity. Vast resources have been spent on buildings and staff. But churches are dying as a result. We need to re-capture our mission to be light in the world around us, in deed as well as word (people are becoming sick of talk and want to see action by the churches before they will respect our teachings). Our funds and efforts must be directed outwards more than inwards.

Training and equipping

‘Nice’ services, and especially sermons, will not cut it. We are on a mission and we need to be trained and equipped in practical ways. Churches need to be organised to facilitate ministry by the whole bunch of christians.

The challenge of a more outspoken atheism and a more educated and critical culture, including more educated and critical christians, means that christians need to be given stronger reasons to believe and be better trained in apologetics. If we don’t, we will lose many of the next generation.

The big picture

I believe all of this adds up to a major revolution in the western church, a new reformation that may be more of a paradigm shift than the Reformation promoted by Luther and company. Not everything that happens will be good – with change there are always excesses and mistakes. But if this is of God, as wise old Gamaliel said, we should not oppose it but get on board.

I’m not the only one

Brian Zahnd has published his take on the new reformation taking place in the church, at Beyond the Wittenberg Door

Pictures: Wikipedia, with a little creative (?) help from unkleE.

7 thoughts on “500 years later – a new reformation

  1. Many thanks Unkle E for the revised post. Once again, I enjoyed reading it.

    This is an excellent summary of what is possibly wrong today and I for one would like to see Churches recognise their excesses and worldly culture. While that seen in TV evangelists have been obvious for years in the U.S., we have our own pretty successful models / versions in a small country like Singapore. I disagree with such prosperity preaching as that is not the good news.

    I pray and hope that those with the right heart will see the foolishness of prosperity wrongly preached. Instead if similar efforts are made in strengthening and building foundations of a educated & vibrant “apologetic” culture – then a new reformation would have the revolution! Or is it a new revolution leading to much need reformation!

    Kindest wishes
    invernest

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  2. Thanks. I didn’t realise that prosperity evangelists were so widespread. I knew about US and African ones, but not from Singapore. Yes I agree, it might seem like good news to some, but it isn’t Jesus’ good news, and if Jesus is right, prosperity teaching is bad news.

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  3. There are a disproportionately few megachurches here (for a small population).

    Without having to pour judgement onto the congregation – I believe many in these churches have a stronger conviction than many including mine, albeit misguided. In fact, I believe a lot of their ‘success’ is due to their strong conviction & trust of the church.

    The latest case:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-34589932

    Sad, but I do hope there is a turnaround here!

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  4. Just looking at religion from a sociological and psychological perspective, research had found that religions do better when they make demands on their adherents. It seems that when you give up something or put in a lot of effort, you are less likely to leave. So that fits with what you’re saying here.

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  5. In order to be more “socially relevant” do you think churches need to get more involved in politics (government), because government is where changes can be made to benefit large numbers of people ?

    On the other hand, is that a breach of the separation of church and State principle, and does that principle still matter ?

    People distrust churches a lot more now after the child abuse scandals, so I’m afraid (or relieved) that the relevance of the corporate church is waning in society. Maybe getting individuals Christians involved in politics and the satisfaction of achievement of results would be good for both religion and society if properly implemented..

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  6. Hi, they are interesting questions.

    I think the separation of church and state is not relevant. That is a view about the state not supporting or establishing one religion over others, not (I think) a view rejecting church involvement in politics. Churches should be allowed to be involved in politics just as much as any other organisation. So the question is whether they should choose to.

    Anabaptists (a loose group of christians who were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation) tended to avoid political involvement because they saw politics as corrupt. But although I am Anabaptist in much of my thinking, I disagree here. I think christians, and churches should definitely get involved in politics, not to be socially relevant, but to care for the rights and lives of the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged. Sometimes that should be done through churches, more often (I think) via individuals.

    Getting involved would have an internal benefit too. Churches and christians have often been socially ignorant and somewhat divorced from the real world, often holding to conservative agendas that seem to me to be based more on greed and maximising wealth in the hands of the elite, than on the teachings of Jesus or the realities of life for some people. So getting involved more would bring greater awareness of inequality, environmental and social issue, and I would hope greater compassion for those suffering from the consequences of inequality.

    There are social commentators who say that in specific situations where religious belief may be the key to making a positive difference.

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  7. I’m just reading Kevin Rudd’s biography. It’s actually very interesting and contains references to what you have been saying about the role of religious belief in politics.

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