Another Reformation?

October 28, 2011

We’re approaching Reformation Sunday, a highlight in worship and preaching for many PCUSA churches around the country. Great hymns, bagpipes, Geneva robes, and a walk down memory lane get us in touch with our roots. Recalling Luther’s bold debate-starter in Wittenberg and Calvin’s audacious experiment in Geneva, we celebrate being part of the Reformed Tradition. It is a great tradition, worthy of remembrance and respect, and compelling in its claims. My life was transformed by the gospel passed on to me in this tradition and I am grateful to God for the intervention.

And yet, for some I suspect the celebration is a rather tongue-in-cheek affair tipping the hat to old-fashioned and outmoded ideas. Almost five hundred years later, we Americans have progressed through the Enlightenment, the Modern Era, and the Information Age. “We now know . . .” has taken the place of “And God said . . ..” We think we can run our lives by scientific data and somehow get along without the moral and spiritual knowledge that is as true as anything one might prove empirically.

In keeping with the season, our PCUSA leaders issued a letter this week that stated:  “Today, in our time, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the midst of another reformation. God is creating a new church in and through us. Signs of it and responses to it are plentiful.” They cite new worshiping communities that are “springing up,” a more flexible Form of Government, and several committees currently at work to “further the work of congregations and presbyteries.”

I most certainly agree that something akin to a sea change is happening in the PCUSA, but I am not sure I would call it “another reformation.” If in fact a new church is appearing, I am not at all sure that God is the one creating it. The ironies associated with “a more flexible Form of Government” were pointed out here earlier this week, and only Presbyterians, it seems, are proud of the fact that new committees have been formed to further the work of congregations and presbyteries.

A reformation, the way the Reformers used the term, referred to a renewed identification with the form: the life of repentance, gratitude, and obedience in Christ that was taught by Jesus and the Apostles. As we acknowledge our drift away from that norm, we seek God’s help to conform to a robust biblical faith, and reform our life together in accordance with the Word of God. Many of the changes we are seeing in the PCUSA are not moves toward a biblical orthodox faith but go in the opposite direction. This is deformation, not reformation.

Is God creating a new church in and through us? Something new certainly is emerging, no doubt about that. I see it more like the process of knitting a long scarf. One starts with some yarn and knits a few rows, but as one continues knitting one discovers the first rows are raveling. As the raveling and the knitting continue, at some point the product is no longer the scarf one started and has become an entirely new one instead.  The PCUSA started as a body knit together by God’s Word, exhibiting the marks of the Church; but in the last century that original theological base has been raveling and a new construct is being introduced. It will not be long before the old is gone and the new will be an unrecognizable creation of human invention. God is not abandoning his Word, but we are in danger of doing so if we do not stop the raveling and go back to repair the Church (with God’s help and the courage of the Spirit). As God said to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Go, and rebuild my Church,” our charge is to respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, reverse our divergent course, and re-conform ourselves to God’s revealed will.

I can think of no better way to celebrate the Reformation this week than to repent and seek God’s restoration as individuals and as a church. And then as God has his way among us, perhaps we can claim that it is God building a new church in us and through us. It will be God’s Church then, not one of our own making. Make it so, Lord Jesus!


4 Responses to “Another Reformation?”

  1. Whit Says:

    Thanks Mary.

    I have one small quibble. Luther’s “debate starter” happened just short of 500 years ago, in 1517. Lutherans in particular are revving up for the event in a little over 5 years.

    But as I formerly taught new members, and I think you will agree, reformation is a process of re-forming the Church in the image of the New Testament Church and routing out all that has accumulated since contrary to the Word of God (an inherently conservative idea). Luther and Calvin sought to purge the Church of the medieval human inventions that were then part of the Roman Church’s heritage, and go back to the original.

    There may, indeed, be a new Reformation happening, but it is not in Louisville. Rather it is happening among those in the PCUSA, the Anglican tradition, the Lutherans, etc. who are separating themselves from the old structures to create new/old things which re-form the New Testament Church according to God’s Word.

    As always, the Left in the Church wants to appropriate the language and externals of the Church, to pretend that they are the successors of Calvin, Knox and others, but then to reject the substance of the ideas and traditions of the Church. The great middle of the Church is often fooled by the externals if the substance is not examined carefully.

    Thank you for calling them on it.

    • revmary Says:

      My bad, on the math. Thanks Whit! And I even knew 1517 was the date. I’ll correct the post.
      Thanks for your comment, stated much better than my post, in fact. Your statement suggests the necessity of Spring Cleaning in the Church, as a regular habit. Instead, we keep on dragging more “stuff” into the house without evaluating whether it is truly consistent with who we are.

  2. William L. Goff Says:

    I too revere the Reformed tradition into which I was born and nurtured. The best way to honor that tradition is not to codify the teaching of the Reformers or to emulate all of their behavior. Martin Luther is one of my heroes, but I cringe when I read his anti-Semitic rants. John Calvin was an incisive thinker who applied the Word of God to society in Geneva. But Calvin also promoted destroying church organs and approved capital punishment of opponents. And I think neither of these great leaders would have approved the ordination of women.
    A better way to honor our Reformed tradition is to act boldly like Luther to question the traditions of our day and to act audaciously like Calvin in addressing social issues.
    I believe in following the substance of the Reformation rather than its form. That is why I think that advocating for the full inclusion of people who have different gender preferences than mine is in keeping of our Reformed tradition. – Bill Goff

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