By Loyd Allen
On Oct. 31, 1517, German monk Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, which changed everything in the West: church, state and society. The Middle Ages swung into the Modern Age on the hinge of the Reformation.
Five hundred years later, many say the Christian church is poised for another reform of equal magnitude. Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren and others have popularized this expectation with terms like emerging, converging and post-modern church. As these terms imply, the Western church is in a transition as yet only partly understood.
Any near-future church reformation will likely have parallels to the Protestant Reformation. The contexts now and then have much in common: a culture-bound church becoming increasingly ineffective and irrelevant to large segments of society while clinging tenaciously to an outdated status quo amid multiple widespread economic, military and spiritual crises.
Here are five things the last reformation can teach us about the next one:
First, results will not go according to plan.
Epoch ending reformations slip the reins of their founders. The Protestant reformers planned to reform the medieval church. As that hope faded, they went to Plan B, creation of a unified Protestant Christendom. That too was unsuccessful.
In the end, the Reformation failed to impose its will on Rome and went in four unreconciled directions: Lutheran, Reformed, Radical (Anabaptist) and Anglican. After decades of religious warfare, these various Christian expressions reached an exhausted stalemate. From the ruins rose the modern world. Results of great reforms are usually unanticipated and radically different from their founders' visions. Church reformers should prepare to be surprised.
Second, ultimate winners are hard to pick.
Today, most Christians in the West assume citizens holding a variety of religious beliefs or none at all have a right to full participation in political processes. Almost no European in the 16th-century Reformation, Protestant or Catholic, could even conceive of this possibility, except for a marginalized few. This minority, the Anabaptists, called for separation of church and state. In response, other Protestants and Catholics alike tortured, burned, drowned, hung and beheaded Anabaptists all over Europe as enemies of God and country. Anabaptist political influence on Reformation society seemed negligible in 1600, but their ideal is the norm today. Time indeed “makes ancient good uncouth,” as James Russell Lowell once said. Reformation calls for humility and taking the long view.
Third, expect conflict, lots of it.
In great reformations, old institutions have a penchant for self-preservation. Faced with massive, even inevitable change, religious institutions tend to throw up roadblocks in the way of reform.
In reaction, driven reformers express a kind of theological road rage at efforts to slow their pace.
As conflicts wax, reconciliation opportunities wane. Luther at first expected to cooperate with Rome in reforming his mother church. He soon began calling the pope the anti-Christ. Early Reformation era popes spent more energy on Renaissance art than Protestant theology. By 1555, Counter Reformation Pope Paul IV famously said that if his own father were a heretic, he would carry the wood to burn him.
Reconcilers on either side, such as the Lutheran Phillipp Melanchthon or the Catholic Desiderius Erasmus, found middle ground uninhabitable. Those who engage in church reformations do well to develop thick skins and expert conflict resolution skills.
Fourth, keep hope alive.
Great Christian reformations appear in times seemingly void of viable futures. More than once, I have had ministerial students ask what hope the current Christian church has to redeem our troubled and religiously indifferent society. I respond that I think we live in a time comparable to 15th-century Catholic priests. Imagine eavesdropping on a couple of ordinary but informed and dedicated European priests in the late 1400s as they discuss the disarray of the medieval Christian church.
They might easily despair of hope for renewal. They could not know what was about to transpire in the Protestant Reformation. If they had known, they might not have recognized it as a renewal of the church. Perhaps we modern Christians are sometimes like them in our recognition that everything must change but finding it hard to imagine how. Christian Reformation history suggests, as the Quakers say, “Way will open.”
Fifth, the Protestant Reformation teaches us that reformation is never finished.
Reformation scholar Lewis Spitz concluded that one of the most significant contributions of the Protestant Reformation was the expectation that the Christian church could and should constantly critique itself. Reformation teaches Christians that the church may not fit its times, but it can and will change.
Reformation is motivated by the mysterious, unpredictable, spiritual striving to help the church become what its creator calls it to be here and now.
This article is adapted from a version published on EthicsDaily on October 21, 2013 and is used by permission.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.