Liberating the Church

Martin-luther On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther performed a relatively minor act. He posted ninety-five theses (in Latin) on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. His desire seems to have been rather simple–start a serious conversation about some of the ministerial abuses inside the church. His act was the equivalent of posting a few items for dialogue on the Internet, a kind of blog post for academic debate. Historians, always looking for key dates, now see this as the spark that lit the fire that led to the Protestant Reformation. Luther himself was not so sure but this fact is clear: the events that followed October 31 1517, created a great turmoil in the Western church.

Luther argued that the church in his day had been taken captive by an inadequate gospel message. Luther's pamphlet, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, likened the church's situation in 16th century Europe to Israel in Babylon. The people of God were prisoners of a false gospel, a false worldview, a false Christian practice. In this form of captivity they could not experience the full potential of Christ's promises and kingdom. Luther's actions, and reactions, are still debated. One thing is certain: Nothing has been the same since, for better and for worse. The Catholic Church later acknowledged a real need for ethical and ecclesial reform by pursuing the Counter-Reformation. But visible unity, torn asunder in the early 1500s, now seems virtually impossible. 

The gospel of the kingdom has always been the central message of the church, in good times and bad. This gospel is one of great joy. It proclaims that a new order has broken into human experience and with it has come the divine power of Jesus to cleanse, forgive, renew and reconcile all life. This reconciliation brings those who come to Christ back to the Father, through the person and work of Christ the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This kingdom gospel turned the world upside-down in the first three centuries. Where it is preached and lived today it still does the same. Witness Latin America, Africa and Asia all three.

This should make us ask, "Is the gospel of the kingdom really being preached in our modern Western context?" If the answer is in doubt, and I am convinced that it is, then the theme for today should again be "liberating the church" from its cultural captivity to structures and forms that keep it from renewal.

This burden for renewal from cultural captivity has been at the heart of every great movement in Christian history, whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. Whether it was St. Paul, Anthony, Pope Gregory the Great, Benedict, Athanasius, John Calvin or John Paul II, the renewal of the church by the gospel of the kingdom has been central to this message.

This same desire for liberation motivated English separatists against liberal Latitudinarians, it impassioned Whitefeld and Wesley to preach to the masses, and it prompted Jonathan Edwards to spread the flame of revival to the American colonies by writing of the great works of Christ by the Spirit. It also gave rise to the vision of neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, with his particular burden for the Lordship of Christ over all life. And it gave it to Cardinal John Henry Newman, who desired to recover the Christian principle of education in the universities of England. It even inspired the early fundamentalists who saw that consistent liberalism was not Christianity; e.g., J. Gresham Machen's book, Christianity and Liberalism. I believe the same spiritual force was behind Vatican Council II, the implications of which are still being worked out in the Roman Catholic Church and beyond. And my friend T. M. Moore sees this same spirit of releasing people from bondage to cultural forms of Christian faith as fueling the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. I was there and I do agree. 

What this is all about is really the status quo. The gospel of the kingdom will always oppose the status quo, regardless of the cultural and church context. Christianity is concerned for personal, social and cultural transformation. Anything less is not the message of the kingdom. We may, and often do, mess this up but we can never be satisfied with business as usual. We should not rush to disunity but at the same time we should not run from our duty to pursue the renewal of the church, all of it. Let us remember this gospel of the kingdom, this good news, on this Reformation Day 2009.

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