Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his in/famous 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Usually, the word ‘anniversary’ carries positive connotations: wedding anniversaries, birthdays count as anniversaries, Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory anniversaries, etc. Sometimes, however, an anniversary is not so positive, like when we remember the passing of a loved one or the raid on Pearl Harbor. ‘Anniversary,’ after all, simply means an annual memorial, like a commemoration—co-remembering. Depending on your perspective, the reforming of the Church that Luther intended and hoped for (and other visionaries before him, by the way), which turned into the Reformation and then Protestantism (a word that is probably in need of updating, since we are no longer actively protesting against Rome), beginning on October 31st, 1517, may either be a positive or negative anniversary.
On the positive side, the Church did reform in needed ways, even the Roman Catholic Church. Years after the Lutheran Church and Calvin’s Church became entrenched in the West, there was the Council of Trent; and many years after that, as many of us may remember, came the Vatican Councils, most recently and importantly what we now call ‘Vatican II.’ Though the Roman Catholic Church at first dug their heels in opposite Luther, the Church eventually and over time did see that reforms were necessary. Indulgences, for instance, were not only unbiblical but also corrupting; priests’ withholding reading and knowledge of Scripture and, in many ways, personal access to salvation were also unbiblical and corrupting practices. As a reformer, Luther did and has had a good influence on the Church in the West, as Protestants and Catholics alike try to return to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and further salvation for all God’s people.
Some would argue that Luther also freed millions from the tyranny of a spiritual hierarchy. In the United States, or France, or any country that has had strong democratic movements grounded in absolute freedom may hold this argument more fervently. Indeed, throughout American history, the Pope has been viewed with suspicion as a meddling foreign influence on our country. The colony of Maryland, now the state, was founded by Lord Baltimore expressly as a safe haven for Catholics (in honor of his wife, Mary), and even then the Catholic colonists of Maryland were outnumbered and often at risk of persecution. Whatever our stance may be on the Pope and the hierarchy of Rome’s Church, the supposed benefits of Protestant church structure are, I think, subjective. I myself am a Protestant and am in agreement with the UMC’s essentially democratic structure with a Council of Bishops, but I can also see and understand the advantages of a more defined hierarchy as in Roman Catholicism. Freedom from the Pope, then, is a neutral matter of opinion.
Unfortunately, while there are positive and neutral parts of the story, there is also a sad part of the story of the Reformation. Perhaps the saddest part is the nature of the Church: it is slow. In recent days I have heard the Church referred to as a giant tortoise and as an Ent, like in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (you know, those talking trees that think and talk slowly). Both are appropriate metaphors, although slightly incorrect. An angry tortoise or stubborn Ent may be better. The story of the Reformation is the story of the Church saying, “No, we’ll shut our ears, because this is what we believe and practice… and now we’re going to believe and practice these ways EVEN HARDER!!” Though the Church did reform, on both sides of the Protestant divide, at first Rome chose to dig in their heels, as I’ve said; indeed, look at any denomination that has split and you’ll likely see that the original denomination took a stubborn stance for an elongated period of time as a response to proposed reforms.
If the Church is not in need of reformation, then stubbornness in the face of proposed reforms is not a bad position to take. The Church is God’s Temple here on earth and we should listen to God for insight, not society or culture. Yet the nature of the Church is inherently, and unfortunately, linked to the nature of humanity. Our human instinct is to reshape the Church in our image, or at least an image that is beneficial to us, maybe easier for us, maybe an image that grants us more power and wealth. When that happens, reforms are required, as in Luther’s day, and stubbornness does no one any good. A combination of human nature and stubbornness, also human nature, resulted in division when Luther tried reforming the Church, and nearly always has resulted in division when later reforms are attempted in any denomination. Methodism, my tradition, began as its own denomination unintentionally as well, because the Church of England was slow to respond to John Wesley’s movement. It is that history of division and enmity that most plagues commemoration of the Reformation.
You could say that the ugly history of division and enmity between the various churches, denominations, amongst God’s Body of Christ, is more felt and apparent now. We live in divisive times. Just this week our country’s news has reported on Spain and Catalonia, disputed elections in Kenya, and a spat between our President and Congressional members of his own party. That spat reminds us of the greater political division present in our country. Indeed, the division in our country is often not merely division but also hate and mockery. Members of my own family have insulted others in my family as ‘morons’ simply because of political beliefs, simply because some are worried about the clear rise of white supremacy and nationalism, and anti-semitism and racism. These are challenging times when we all long for unity, we pray for it, we talk about it, but then our actions separate us even more. Calling for and talking about unity does not create unity.
As I write I am ever aware of the difficulty working towards unity presents, because of the national political dialogue, yes, but also because of developments in my church, the United Methodist Church. Right now a special commission, the Way Forward Commission, is working on a solution to the questions and issues surrounding homosexuality in the church, whether “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine” or not and whether persons who are homosexual should be ordained or married, to bring before a special General Conference in 2019. If that special General Conference does not end ‘the right way,’ many in the church on both sides are subtly or explicitly threatening to break away, to create a schism in the church, a new denomination. All this despite the fact that many in the church are calling for unity, particularly the bishops. Yet those who feel like their side will not ‘win’ also hear the call for unity as a call to suppress and oppress dissenting beliefs and practices; they hear the call for unity as a disingenuous plea to not reform, to keep the status quo. Some may say that’s ridiculous, that we need to believe those who are calling for and praying for unity at face value, that they really do care for unity. Regardless, we should see in the UMC how complicated creating unity and being unified is.
One of the unintended consequences of the Reformation is that splitting a church has become a part of Church life. If the UMC does split, it actually won’t be all that newsworthy in comparison to recent church history. There are now over ten thousand Protestant denominations, in case you weren’t counting. It seems that any time anyone is not perfectly happy with a church, he or she ups and starts another church, adding yet more division and disunity to God’s family and society generally.
Having established the downsides of the Reformation, particularly in our current climate, what can we learn from even the negative history to help us move forward as God’s people? First, I do want to repeat that there are good aspects of the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants alike are more aware and focused on God’s grace, rather than the power of the Church, in working miracles and salvation, among many other things. With that said, there are at least three lessons as I see it: in the form of questions, 1) Are the issues of discord ever worth the passion invested? 2) What do continued divisions say about us? 3) What is it that we as a Church stand for?
1) If you listen to or read NPR, you might have heard or read a piece on the Reformation five hundred years on. The piece included a good deal of history as well as an update: Lutherans and Catholics now agree on almost everything, except church structure. Catholic leaders now thank Luther for initiating much needed reforms. It seems Pope Francis is going out of his way to acknowledge Protestant leaders, actually, because he also recently thanked and recognized John Wesley for the Methodist movement. If Lutherans had not spent five hundred years apart from Rome, it is possible that the two churches could now merge together, because many can look back and ask, “Was that worth it, if the difference between us is now minimal?” If God had been the centerpiece rather than human nature, and passions were not quite so high at the time, then perhaps Lutherans and Roman Catholics would indeed now be one family.
The Methodists themselves have experienced splintering a number of times. The major split occurred over slavery. Though the Methodist Episcopal Church first held a firm anti-slavery stance, in the mold of John Wesley, over time some came to believe that owning slaves was not a great sin; others believed that the church should become politically engaged to fight for abolition; others believed that the church should not own slaves but needn’t go extreme. Methodism split more than once on this one issue. Then, after the Civil War, they all came back together, essentially saying, “You know what, this isn’t worth our separation any more.” After a time, Methodists looked back and questioned the split.
I am, of course, significantly downplaying frustration and disagreement within the Church. But my point is, will we in the UMC, if we split in 2019 or not, look back in years to come on the division now within our church and say, “Well, that was silly”? Will we question why we fought over homosexuality, or anything else? And will we in our country look back on this time and question why we so fervently fought over the rights of immigrants, the rights and health of the poor, of blacks or Hispanics, of women? Will we look back and question why we didn’t turn to God, turn to God’s Word as written in the Bible, turn to God’s overwhelming message of love and compassion, and live accordingly?
My concern (and thanks to Rev. Greg Smith for putting words to my thoughts) is that we will split, we will continue to live out bigotry without acknowledging it as such and fuel tension and discord, and realize too late our mistake. Lutherans and Catholics will not merge any time soon because they have spent so much time apart. Methodists were able to merge because the split lasted less than a century. Is our disunifying passion worth the risk of formally and forever solidifying division? Or should we take a more loving, compassionate, upbuilding and sanctifying all people approach?
At the end of the day, friends, the history of the Reformation, and the various Christian versus Christian wars—let alone the Christian crusades against Jews, Muslims, and atheists—arising from the Reformation, should tell us that fighting one another is not worth it. Anything that contributes to division and not loving God and loving neighbor should be removed, or at least take secondary or tertiary position in our personal and corporate faith lives. If indulgences are at issue, let’s review whether the indulgences are biblical; if the corruption of the priesthood is at issue, let’s evaluate and review the role of the priesthood; if slavery is at issue, then perhaps we should remove slavery; if homosexuality is at issue, then perhaps we should remove our stance on homosexuality altogether, or at least not make it a matter of church discipline; if the rights and health of the poor are at issue, then we should turn to the biblical prophets and ask how we might better serve the poor so that they are no longer; if immigration is at issue, then perhaps we can turn to the Bible and see that we should care for the alien, and review how we might better serve those who are fleeing impoverished and dangerous conditions rather than just selfishly kicking them out, and so on. God, God’s love and God’s Word, and loving neighbor must always be our focus. Let’s be passionate about that rather than ruled by human nature to serve self, even if we disguise self-service as merely opinion, over non-essential matters. John Wesley urged the Methodist movement to hold firm only to essential matters of salvation and God’s grace, and let non-essential matters be secondary or tertiary. Why can’t we? Nothing that inhibits others from loving God, life, and neighbor should be practiced.
2) Looking back on the splits and mergers within the original Methodist Episcopal Church, there are some denominations that split that have yet to merge back with what we might call the ‘mother denomination,’ the United Methodist Church. I do not argue that those other denominations are sowing discord by not merging back. Rather, I argue that perhaps taking stock of the Methodist denominations remaining separate might tell us something about who we are as a people, within the church and in society generally.
The major Methodist denominations still separate from the UMC are, as you might know, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal-Zion (AMEZ). I’ve already written enough in this post to discourage you from reading the whole piece, so I’ll keep the history recap of these churches short. If you remember well the history of African-Americans in our country, you can probably guess the history of the AMEZ.
Both churches, though, beginning with the AME in the early 19th century, have their origins in the racism of this country. Some church buildings to this day retain architecture of a checkered past. The two churches that I currently serve both have two staircases, and one of them has a bar down the middle pews, the other used to have two entrances as well as two staircases. These features were meant to keep men and women separate. My churches are in northern Vermont, where there has never been much of a population of African-Americans. Yet in places throughout our country where there has been an African-American population, if your church building was built prior to the Civil War or during the days of Jim Crow and your building has a balcony, you may want to research whether that balcony was built for black persons. In what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), black persons were more and more only allowed to sit in the balcony as the 19th century rolled along. After awhile, black preachers were being kicked out of MEC pulpits. This racism—and, remember, this isn’t even including the splits over slavery as an institution, this is about racism, pure and simple—led to African-Americans starting denominations in which they could worship and serve God in peace. Of course, AME and AMEZ churches were attacked and persecuted, but at least those churches accepted the people who came to preach and worship and serve our God of grace, mercy, love and compassion. I think this is all you need to know about the history of these churches to get the picture.
Here's the thing: what does it say about us, Methodists and Americans generally, that the AME and AMEZ churches still exist? If time plays a role in whether churches are able to reunify, as I am suggesting and seems obviously to be the case since time contributes to the development of new practices and traditions, then how long becomes too long? If the Methodist churches that split over slavery, an institution, could reunify within a century, why couldn’t the Methodist churches that split over racism also reunify? Or was racism too inherent in our country, in our systems, even our religions? Is racism too entrenched in our country, in our systems, even our religions two hundred years later, to reunify? Or would we rather blame it on time, two hundred years later, and not confront issues that are actually pivotal, as opposed to non-essential, about who we are as individual persons and as a corporate people? Lutherans and Calvinists (Presbyterians), at least, have five hundred years of history buffering them from reunification. We don’t have that much tradition as an excuse.
Will we ever be able to acknowledge the racism that still lives in us—yes, you and me—and our institutions and churches? If we are unable to acknowledge that racism, will we ever be able to conquer racism and unify as a people, whether as a small community, a church, or a country? I believe in God’s almighty power to transform us through His grace, to make us real disciples of the Christ, but honestly, with so many people unwilling to look inward and to face who they are deep down, choosing instead to declare, “I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, but…”, I have little hope. God can only renew us in Christ if we rely on Him rather than ourselves. Right now we are doing a whole lot of relying on what we think is right, on what is right for us, based on only our own experience, and we are not listening either to God or to our brothers and sisters. That needs to change if hope is to be restored, if the history of the Reformation can redeem itself from ugly to beautiful—from kicking out to accepting and loving those who are different.
3) The question, “What is it that we as a Church stand for?” is a uniquely Reformation-esque question. I imagine that before the Reformation church leaders and believers simply said, “Here’s the Church, its doctrine, and that’s that.” Defining what a church stands for is usually motivated by delineating it from other churches. So there was no reason to ask or answer the question when there was one Church.
Now, it must be said that for a millennium there has been a break between East and West, Roman and Orthodox. The rift between the Christian East and West had been brewing theologically for hundreds of years. Rome and Constantinople did divide over theological matters eventually, not over a reform issue that would rock the Church as with Luther. Still, it is somewhat West-centric to highlight the Reformation as when the Church split rather than five hundred years before.
With that said, I push back against this notion that a church needs to stand for anything. Every church should stand for, if we want to use that language, what the Church should stand for: God’s grace and love, and living a life in which loving God and neighbor through Christ is paramount. We shouldn’t be asking or answering the question of what we stand for because, again, that question is intrinsically divisive, pitting my church against yours, or what I believe against what a church believes to determine whether or not I can join the church.
You may wonder who is asking, “What does your church stand for?” The answer to that is, a lot of people. A few weeks ago someone asked me that question in response to a Front Porch Forum post about one of my church’s summer projects. More recently that, while I was making myself available at what I call Pastor’s Listening Place for prayer and conversation with folk who do not have a church family, someone asked me what my church believes and stands for. I knew what both these individuals were looking for: here are our positions on God, the Trinity, homosexuality, marriage, the Bible, etc. And for both of them I avoided the question altogether, which of course disappointed them. What I did reply to both of them was, essentially, paraphrasing from memory, “Ultimately, Methodism is a movement concerned with holy living in God’s grace, of living in such a way that God’s means of grace are utilized to the utmost as we strive to be perfected in God’s love and live like Christ. It is not a church concerned with enforcing right belief, or standing for anything, unless what we stand for and what we are believing in is God’s loving and merciful bent towards salvation, justice and peace.”
Because of the Reformation, unfortunately, such answers, while I think true to Methodism at least, always seem like copouts. The response is almost always, “Well, okay, but I want to know where you stand on this and that.” A few years ago, a local radio station refused to bring me on to briefly talk about a book I wrote merely because I am Methodist and the UMC does not share a stance on certain issues with the radio station. No matter what the book was about or how it might help people live better lives or help end human trafficking. The funniest part is that the UMC does, if you were it ask the denomination, share the same ideas as the radio station around the issues the station was concerned; the UMC just doesn’t care (or shouldn’t care) to stake its life on every single question of theology and practice. But this is life post-Reformation: “What does your church stand for? And, by the way, when you answer, make sure you answer in agreement with what I stand for, or else I’m walking away.”
Ridiculous. Here’s a unifying thought for you: persons of all churches everywhere should make evident what it is they stand for in how they live. Ironically, this is an idea straight from the Reformation and on down to Wesley and the people called Methodist, yet it is an idea eschewed because of the defensive isolationism propagated by the Reformation.
What I mean is that we should make evident in our lives, by our compassion, that we stand for a Savior who associated with the outcasts, aliens, and sinners; make evident in our lives, by our humility rather than assertiveness and self-righteousness, that we stand for a Savior who died on the cross; make evident in our lives, by our dedication to holiness despite what culture or friends or family may demand or expect of us, that we stand for a God who is powerful enough to make us new; make evident in our lives, by our service to all our brothers and sisters, that we stand for a God who has always heard the cry of the needy, oppressed, alien, and downtrodden; make evident in our lives, by our attention to prayer and worship, that we stand for a God that does not care about political boundaries but longs for His Kingdom made real. There are seven billion people on this planet, which means there are seven billion people in need of God’s love and transformative grace, so why the hell do we care what a particular church stands for? And why the hell does each church fight within itself about what it stands for? Don’t we all stand for the same thing? To reclaim and paraphrase a Revolutionary War slogan from my home state, we are doing far too much treading on others, as a Church and as a country.
My hope and prayer for you, and for all of us, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, is that we rededicate our lives to God and God alone, put our trust and loyalty in God and God alone, to know in God what is essential and what is secondary, and seek God’s perfecting grace in our lives by living holy lives, and drop the weight of all else, so that we can transform the history and legacy of the Reformation from division to unity.