A couple months ago, I wrote a blog post defending the Reformers from the charge of schism. Somebody pointed out to me though that the Reformers were not free from criticism and neither are we. The fact is that churches continue to split, and our federations, denominations, etc. are split and divided by minor doctrines. As the Reformers fought for the reformation of the church, the Reformer Martin Bucer confessed to the Roman Catholic theologian Von Wied, that both sides had to take responsibility for the failure to truly Reform the church of that day: “Both sides have failed. Some of us have overemphasized unimportant points, and others have not adequately reformed obvious abuses.” (quote found here)
As we look back to the time of the Reformation, we look back with joy to the time when the Word of God broke free from the strangle-hold of tradition and the papacy. But we also look back to a time of major debate about both doctrine and unity. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not simply a time of celebration, but also a time of longing as we seek to walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1), “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The fact is, the Reformation rediscovered the centrality of the cornerstone and the foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ and the Word of God. When Christ is pushed away from the center, and tradition is elevated to the Word of God, it is difficult to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Yet, in spite of this aim to bring back the centrality of Christ and His Word, over the course of 500 years, the church has continued to splinter, and rather than building on this foundation of sola scriptura and sola Christus, we have divided it up into little hills where every denomination goes to die on.
My argument is that we are still under orders to work for reformation. The church splintered, and began to be re-formed, but the project was broken up by human pride, and nationalistic spirit. Eventually, God brought all these splinters together in one spot: North America. Immigration and “denominational tolerance” brought multiple denominations into the same towns. The Lutherans, Wesleyans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Anglicans have had to duke it out for 200 years from town to town in North America.
In North America, we struggle with the fact of disunity. It is hard work to work together in life and in doctrine as churches. Liberal unity movements have killed churches by the hundreds and even thousands, having been built on compromise, rather than on the Word of God, the only firm foundation. Confessional nuances between various confessional statements have divided confessional churches like Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Reformed. Confessional interpretations have divided groups within all these groups. In some, truth has trumped love, and in others love has trumped the truth. And then we have neither truth or love, because they go together. Some churches have rejected the authority of Scripture, and have allowed in various forms of idolatry and worldliness. It’s a mess.
Currently, the Gospel Coalition is seeking to bring together gospel-centered churches, but many look on with a wary eye. This is understandable. We are leery as a result of years and years of compromise and the watering down of the truth. There are unity movements at work within NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Committee), but it is hard when we have become so entrenched in our nuances and have turned our traditions into rules. Add to that various voices of slander and treachery, and the difficulty of unity may seem insurmountable.
It’s a mess. But grace works with messes. The only power is the Word of God, the grace of God, the power of Jesus, faith in Him, and the exclusive glory of God. We should look back and celebrate this expression of God’s grace in the world that exploded in the world 500 years ago. But we must recognize that this same grace is at work today, and can set the world on fire for another 500 years. We can fight in truth and love to bring about new reformations and advance the reformation, to bring the gospel to the countries and cities of North America and too the ends of the earth continuing to build on the only cornerstone and foundation: Jesus Christ and His Word. And then we can open up our arms to the Roman Catholic Church as well and point out how their structures and governments have wandered from the truth. When Jesus Christ and His Word are central, we can then continue the task of building.
This is the ongoing work of Reformation.