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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Five Hundred Years – Now What?
September 28, 2017

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther publicly posted 95 objections to current Roman church practices. He sought an honest debate, but instead he was publicly vilified, and eventually excommunicated. The Protestant Reformation traces its origins to that fateful day when a good and faithful church member was banished for asking inconvenient questions in public.

Many events this year are marking the five hundredth anniversary of this seismic reconfiguration of the Christian west. The observation of this quintennial comes to its apex at the end of October, and, in honor of that, we will consider for the next few weeks various aspects of the history and legacy of the Protestant Reformation. 

The church is always undergoing reformation, listening anew to the Spirit as our world changes, our institutions become self-referential, and we settle into a status quo. There is certainly no time in the Bible where things got finally settled; reformation was and is a constant state for those seeking to serve the God who is always at work to heal, redeem, and transform a broken world.

Yet there are major tectonic shifts that alter the church’s landscape every few centuries. Phyllis Tickle has called them major “rummage sales” at which time the household of faith throws out a bunch of old stuff that may have once been useful but now only clutters things up. Like all rummage sales, it is an occasion for major house-cleaning, but not destruction. Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, observes that every 500 years or so the church has undergone a major reconfiguration.

The “Great Transformation” that began at the outset of the Christian era with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus grew exponentially for five hundred years. Then the collapse of the Roman Empire led the Christian movement to shift from missionary to monastic emphasis. The next five hundred years, sometimes called the “Dark Ages,” saw the church became internally focused, culminating in the Great Schism between the Eastern (Orthodox) and the Western (Catholic) churches at the turn of the first millennium. Five hundred years later the Protestant Reformation changed fundamentally the way the Western church understood authority in the church, and now we stand on the cusp of another grand rummage sale five hundred years later.

Whether we find Tickle’s argument persuasive or not, it is appropriate for us to ask, “What does the Reformation five hundred years ago mean for how we look ahead today? What is the reform needed among us now, and how is God’s Spirit moving to bring about such reform?”

Martin Luther and John Calvin are the two major figures of the Protestant Reformation at the turn of the 16th century, though countless others worked for church reformation in the same era. Many contemporary reformers, including Desiderius Erasmus and Ignatius of Loyola, remained part of the Roman Church even though their critiques of the church’s failures were as trenchant as Luther’s and Calvin’s.

Why did Luther, Calvin, and their colleagues leave Rome, while others stayed? The answer is complex, but it is important to note that neither Luther nor Calvin wanted to leave the church. They were excommunicated against their will. Voluntary separation from fellow believers contradicted everything they believed about the church.

Yet they had no choice but to start new church communities, given their excommunication from Rome. Calvin sought to bring his faith community and Roman leaders together in an ecumenical council, even allowing that the Pope could chair the council, if necessary. His appeals for such a council fell on deaf ears in Rome.

Yet forces of reform were ubiquitous enough that Rome underwent a simultaneous internal reformation known as the Counter-Reformation. The work of the Protestant Reformers exercised a profound impact on Rome, one that continued to unfold through to the Second Vatican Council of the 20th century.

Here is the point: Reformation is not inherently about dividing the church, but about revitalizing it. Every congregation, every denomination needs reformers to keep us true to our calling as God’s missionary people. The church inevitably bristles at them. But neither excommunication of them nor voluntary separation by them is a faithful response to their agitations.

One of the tragic legacies of the Protestant Reformation is that it has normalized church schism. By far the longest section of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is Book Four about the church, which begins by insisting that we never have the right to break away from fellow believers. He catalogs Rome’s errors at great length, but never do they justify leaving the church.

As a community seeking always to be reformed by the Spirit, how are we embodying our commitment to fulfill Jesus’ great prayer “that they all may be one” as he and the Father are one? (John 17:21)

Your fellow-reformer,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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