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