Monday, April 4, 2011

Is The Reformation Dead?

Is it possible that we are witnessing the end of the classic expressions of the Reformation in American society?  Now, I know that the Reformation itself was over a few hundred years ago, but the American churches that can claim to be direct descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli's teachings may well be nearing their final days (and in some cases, like the Episcopal Church and the UCC, are already buried in their fine ecclesiastical coffins).  With the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America having officially renounced the Word of God last year by opening the way for ordaining practicing gays, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) about to do the same thing by adopting the new form of government and/or opening the way for presbyteries to ordain persons who reject the authority of God's Word and the reign of Christ in their lives (on a "case-by-case" basis, of course), the result will be the self-elimination of two primary Reformation streams from the apostolic, orthodox, and catholic expressions of Christianity.

O yes, there are still other groups that can claim to be carrying on the banner of the Reformation, such as the Baptists, Mennonites, and other assorted groups that can trace their origins back to the ecclesiastical upheavals of the 16th century.  But these groups identify more with the Radical Reformation, and were never the major expressions of the church resulting from the major protestant efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church rather than reject it.  After all, it was the refusal of the Roman Church to respond positively that forced the emergence of the "separated brethren" of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, as Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli had hopes of "reforming" the Roman Church.  As for the Methodists, Disciples, and Assemblies of God, they have an even less direct lineage to the Reformers.

Then, there are the "other" Lutheran and Reformed expressions, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the assorted smaller Reformed bodies.  It remains to be seen, however, if any of these can grow and assume the mantle of maintaining or expanding the influence and presence of a Reformation-oriented fellowship in the growing secular society in America.  The Reformed Church in America did this in the early days of this country, but it rapidly became a sectional church for the New England  and upper Midwest areas as time went by and America expanded.  If the RCA and the Christian Reformed churches can become more established throughout the country and grow substantially in numbers, they may emerge someday as the new heralds of the Reformation in American society, but this is clearly not an impending reality today. 

Then, there are the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, both of which are growing, and showing some significant energy, but, being rather new to the scene, they are still fairly introspective denominations seeking their true identities.  Plus, neither denomination has the infrastructure to do mission and ministry on the scale that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has done (though what both do with their resources is very impressive).  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is perhaps the one denomination that is best poised to carry the Reformation banner.  Yet, despite its size, longevity, and organizational capabilities, it has been a rather insular church and therefore not very adept at being a presence and influence in today's American society.  So, if the ELCA and the PCUSA abdicate their places as the major Reformation expressions in the United States, there is really no one able or ready to assume this role at this time.

So, from where I stand, it looks like the churches that have carried the heritage and promise of the Reformation in American society are abdicating their theological birthrights.  They are trading them for a very bad stew prepared by "the world, the flesh, and the devil."  Thank God for the vibrancy of the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican churches in the world outside of the United States and Europe.   Thank God that the words and actions of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Melancthon, Knox, and Beza are inspiring anew the theologies and lives of Christians in the other three corners of the globe (especially Asia and Africa), where most of the church of Jesus Christ resides today.  The message and mission of the Reformers will continue strong and unabated in these faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  And maybe, just maybe, someday their faithfulness will return the truth of the Word and faith in Christ to American hearts --- rekindling a new and greater presence of the message and mission of the Reformation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are too optimistic!