The Reformed Reformation
This week marks what most people consider to be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 is the date Martin Luther nailed his Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, known more commonly as the “Ninety-five Theses”, to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther, who was a professor of theology and a Catholic priest and monk, did not intend this posting to be an act of defiance of the Roman Catholic Church. He saw his work as the opening of a scholarly examination of the practice of selling indulgences, or the granting of absolution from punishment through the payment of money to the church. Tacking his theses to the church door was something akin to posting on a community bulletin board, or a form of early day social media. The Catholic Church did not see things that way, however, and after some legal proceedings, excommunicated Luther.
There had been some prior steps toward reformation. In the 12th century, Peter Waldo broke with the church over issues, such as use of local language, voluntary poverty, and lay preaching, and was excommunicated. Englishman John Wycliffe, in the 14th century, translated the bible from the official vulgate into Middle English, and objected to numerous practices of the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated before his death from a stroke in 1384, and was declared a heretic posthumously in 1415. His corpse was exhumed and burned along with his written work. Jan Hus, a reformer from Prague, was also declared a heretic in 1415, and was burned at the stake. Each of these men had some early influence on the reformation process.
These reformers sought to return the church to its biblical roots, eliminating many traditional practices they saw as being extra-biblical at best, and (worse) often in direct conflict with God’s written word. It was an attempt, to borrow a phrase from Fellowship’s ministry distinctives, to have ministry form to follow spiritual function. There had been rampant corruption in the Catholic Church. Popes, bishops, and even parish priests had become wealthy individuals by various questionable means. Many accepted practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church, handed down by tradition, papal decree, and action by numerous tribunals and councils, had no basis in scripture. At about this time in history, the Holy Roman Empire ruled nearly all of Europe, deriving its power from the Catholic Church, and, in turn, feeding power back to the papacy and his subordinates. Taking on such power was no small task, and succeeding was nothing less than miraculous.
During his time on earth, Jesus repeatedly took on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who professed adherence to the law, but truly paid little more than superficial attention to Mosaic law, and emphasized hundreds of extra-legal rules and traditions created by man. Similarly, men like Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther questioned the practices, beliefs, teachings, and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which the reformers saw as having left the truth of the bible and the example of Jesus Christ and His first century church.
Interestingly, though many denominations arose from the work of these brilliant reformers, these denominations never realized full reform. Many of the most detrimental issues were reformed – the selling of indulgences, the use of common languages in worship and in translations of the bible, and a general return of integrity among the clergy – but many other traditions of the Catholic Church were carried forward as part of what a church had come to be understood to be. Function still following form.
We have not eradicated all vestiges of empty tradition in our church today. I do believe, however, as initiated by Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and those who followed, we have done well to put scripture ahead of creed, and sound, biblical doctrine before edicts from some council. One of the founding directives of Fellowship at Cross Creek is that we always strive to put function ahead of form in our worship, teaching, and observances. We may not have everything completely right yet. After all, we are an imperfect church for imperfect people. But, if we do not get it all correct, it is not from lack of will or because we are not trying. We welcome thoughtful suggestions as to how we can come closer to Christ’s original blueprint for His church. We are thankful for the contributions of those early reformers, and the many who have worked toward reform in the intervening centuries. At Fellowship, we are still trying to reform the reformation.
Kevin Huddleston is an Elder at Fellowship at Cross Creek in Branson, Missouri, An Imperfect Church for Imperfect People