The Reformation at 500: Are We Reformers or Protesters?

For its 500th anniversary, the Reformation has been receiving a lot of attention—in the media (even The New Yorker, see “The Hammer” in the current, October 30, 2017 edition); in denominations; and, in local churches. Of course, the moment 500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed or, more likely sent, his 95 theses, was not the only major shift in the life of the Christian Church. The Church has always been about the process of altering and changing.

At Old South, we’ve been focusing on the Reformation in a variety of ways. We’ve been learning about some of the important theological concepts associated with the Reformation (indulgences, predestination and everyone’s favorite, especially John Calvin’s, total depravity). And, we’ve been learning about the people—those who helped pave the road for the Reformation (like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe) and those who helped propel the ideas of the Reformation (Martin Luther obviously, along with John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli too, among others).

In November, we’ll begin to talk about how we, in the twenty-first century, are still involved in reforming the Church. In fact, many years from now, this very time of change may be viewed as a time similar to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

A church not far from my house has a large sign on its front lawn: “Put the Protest back in Protestantism.” Along with that, an invitation to a worship service involving other area Protestant churches.

I see that sign at least once a day, but usually several times a day. And, I find myself wondering about it, and wrestling with its words and invitation.

Are we about the work of “reforming” or “protesting”? Should we be involved with one more than the other?  And, what should “reform” and/or “protest” look like in churches like the one I serve? Is the best part of Protestantism really the “protesting” part?

Here’s the thing that troubles me. Reform seems to me to be the sort of work that includes rather than divides, where the work of altering and improving involves a variety of people. Protest seems to be the work of telling other people that they are doing something wrong. The one who is protesting asserts knowledge of what is right, against something else that is wrong. The “other” must change, but necessarily the one who is protesting.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are times for protest. And, there are times when people of faith should protest.

But, is the current moment, as we celebrate the Reformation at 500, will we decide that it’s the “protest” part of “Protestantism” that matters most?

I hope not.

In our weekly Bible study at Old South, a group that includes people from a variety of area churches, we have been discussing and arguing our way through “A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” written by the Stillspeaking Writers’ Group of the United Church of Christ. This past week, when we focused on the third session, we were confronted by “Hot Button” issues, like “Total Depravity.”

In his presentation of the topic, leading up to discussion questions, Anthony B. Robinson offered the following:

“Total Depravity,” a Reformation teaching particularly associated with John Calvin, does not mean every single one of us is really a Hannibal Lecter. . . . It means that the power of sin and self-centerness are real, and have a way of insinuating themselves into everything.

Sin’s power and self-deception insinuate themselves—and here’s where this doctrine gets really useful—even into our attempts to do good. And you can take this a step further, when we are inclined to feel very confident that we are “the good and the just,” this doctrine would urge special caution. We are never so dangerous, observed theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, as when we are absolutely convinced of our own virtue.

I couldn’t agree more.

There’s a place—an important one, no doubt (as we are experiencing in no uncertain terms in this time)—for protest.

But, perhaps, we ought to keep a focused eye on reform even more—when we are not so much pointing the finger of accusation, but inviting a more constructive, thoughtful, and inclusive path forward. Protest will do some good, but making the sorts of changes necessary for a more just world will take a lot more.  As Anthony B. Robinson asserts, “Only by honestly knowing the depth of our need, can we also know the height and breadth of God’s capacity to find, to heal, to save.”  Amen.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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