Thursday, December 01, 2005

Reform and Conflict

I began reading Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion, AD 1350-1648 over the weekend. I haven't gotten very far, but the introduction got me to thinking about what is the goal of the church. I feel sort of like Lawson Stone when he dove into Augustine here.

As I mentioned earlier, church history is a hobby, not a specialty. No doubt better informed people, such as Jim West, will set me straight. But, here we go...

<idle musing> (long)

The author introduces the book by reviewing (briefly) the history of scholarship on the Reformation, which is in even bigger turmoil than usual. He talks about the view that the church was meeting the needs of the people, as evidenced by the large donations, increasing numbers of confraternities, the veneration of relics, the reform movements within it, etc.

That is what got me thinking, "What is the goal of the church?" Is it to meet people's needs? In our postmodern culture, it would seem that meeting people's needs would be foremost, after all the church exists to serve, right? Well, yes...but.

It took me a bit to find out why I was having such a hard time with this statement. Finally it dawned on me, the church might have been serving the felt needs of the people, but it was giving them false direction. The people were being led to believe that works and correct ritual were what was needed. Now, and here is where I my protestant sola scriptura foundation comes blasting through, they were being led to believe that tradition was of greater importance than clear scriptural commands. Similar to the Pharisees in the New Testament, the church had constructed this huge edifice of doctrine without any justification in scripture. The medievel church taught that the way to heaven was via pilgrimages, viewing relics (or collecting them), attending Mass, doing penance, etc. If you were good enough, you got into heaven directly. If not, you made it into Purgatory, where you were purged of your unholiness. Yes, it was by grace you made it, but grace only got you so far, after that it was works. The blood of Christ was cheapened and the people were being misdirected. This is why the Reformation happened.

While I don't believe that the Reformation was inevitable, after all, Luther didn't set out to create a new church. All he wanted to do was debate his 95 theses in hopes that there would be internal reform to the church. Once the church refused to respond, then split became inevitable. The fact that the printing press was available assisted greatly in creating this new movement.

But, back to the original question, "What is the goal of the church?" According to Revelation, the church is the bride of Christ. If this is true, and I believe that it is, then our goal as believers should be to please our husband--Christ. Now this is where it can get tricky, and usually does. How do we please Christ? The medievel church would say by following their commands and going on pilgrimages, viewing relics, etc. Unfortunately, the modern Evangelical church usually answers it by saying, "Get involved, come early, come often, serve on committees, give of your time, resources, etc." How is this different from the medievel church? Different rules, same purpose--build this structure! Do this, do that! Where is grace in all this? As a friend of mine says, we come to Christ by grace and then spend the next 40 years trying to prove we didn't need it! Of course, the non-evangelical church answers it a bit differently, they say, "Serve your fellow man, be a good person, come to church on Sunday." Again, where is grace?

So, how do we please Christ? By obeying Him, humbly acknowledging our total dependence on Him, not just for salvation, but for daily living. Most Christians in the U.S. are practicing atheists, we believe God can do things, but somewhere else, to someone else (last part stolen from The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ron Sider). For daily living we are on our own, doing our own thing for our own glory, Christ forgotten. We are better Bultmannians than we realize! We have demythologized the Bible, and then try to explain it all scientifically!

But, I am running out of time and need to get to work.

</idle musing>

What does anyone think? Am I way off course? Hello, anyone out there...

Update, 7:55.
I have a few minutes here and will add another thought. I believe the heart of the gospel is found in the Sermon on the Mount. I don't mean as a goal, but as an actual prescription for living a truly Christian life. Wesley wrote a whole series of sermons on it, taking it literally and applicable to daily living. The first time I read them, it scared me, because he is right. I have already mentioned E. Stanley Jones' book The Christ of the Mount here. He builds his whole book around the same theme...


Jim said...

Hi James,
The "causes" of the Reformation are quite complex, as you can imagine. There were, to be sure, religious reasons for it. The primary one, however, was the hatred of the clergy by the populace. In their minds, the clergy were withholding the means of grace, controlling them, and violating their free and proper distribution. Anti-clericalism reached a fever pitch during the late 1480's and early 1500's (at exactly the "right moment" when humanism intersected with theology).

There were, as well, political reasons for "Reformation" and many of the German princes in particular were thrilled with the possibility, on religious grounds of course, of being free of Papal control (and taxation). I hate to sound skeptical, but the economic reasons were the primary mover for the Princes support of the Reformers.

As to your suggestion that folk were concerned with the "purpose of the Church", this is, in a way, quite correct- but for reasons other than you suppose. To the Medieval mind, the Church was the gateway to salvation. In the mind of the laity, if the clerics did not perform their duties they risked not only their own salvation, but the salvation of their congregants as well. Priests would frequently "punish" their congregations for talking during sermons, or failing to do as the clerics demanded, by walking out on the job, refusing to offer the sacraments, and basically going on strike. This action closed the gates to salvation and was frequently enough done and widespread enough that people had grown tired of it.

When Zwingli and Luther arrived on the scene, they had seen enough of this misuse of the people and cruelty of the clergy. Their efforts were, part and parcel, aimed at opening again the gateway to salvation for the common folk. And they hit upon the truth that salvation isn't provided by sacremental majesty but by grace- and so the Reformation was born.

There's more to it, of course, then that. But that's the basic reason, the skeleton, that would take 10 volumes of 8 point font to flesh out.

And thanks for the mention of the book, I had not heard of it but now must get it!

jps said...

Thanks for the comments, Jim. You are quite right, and I was aware of the polical reasons, but my thoughts were triggered by the spiritual ones, and how they relate to today's church. I tend to paint with a wide brush, and consequently the details sometimes get left out.


Jim said...

In connection with your "Sermon on the Mount" reading you simply MUST read Luther's lectures on the text. Brilliant! And deeply moving.