On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.
Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.
Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another.
A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.
That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight.
It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?
Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church?
I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?
I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there.
The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?
It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.
It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today.