Are we in a new Reformation or a new Radical Reformation?
Something is changing in the church. The staid, safe cultural church that has been the hallmark of 20th century America is fading fast. Something new is coming or perhaps is already here. New movements are springing up all over the place. At the same time many of the traditional bulwarks are crumbling. Denominations hold less sway than ever before. America is becoming a progressively more secular country or perhaps more accurately a more vaguely spiritual, less overtly “Christian” people. Poll after poll reflects the reality that Americans are less concerned with orthodoxy and more with self-fulfillment. Truth be known, I think it has always been this way. Now people are more willing to abandon the safety of religion and act according to their nature instead of hiding in the church. Amidst the turmoil, I think we are seeing a new Reformation taking place, or more accurately a new Radical Reformation.
One of the drivers of the Radical Reformation was access to the Word of God. In the Bible, translated into the vernacular of the people, regular people found a source of information that had been closed to them and that access led to people asking questions. Those questions led to actions, some that were not so good but many that were very positive. Where Rome once controlled the flow of information and access to the Bible, even among her own priestly caste, now the Word was widely available. In the same way, information is now available to virtually everyone that was not easily accessible even a decade ago outside of the halls of academia. It is much harder for the professional scholars and theologians to control the discourse in the church. With the advent of the internet we have easy access to materials and opinions outside of our own local church. In online booksellers like Amazon and smaller, niche book stores like Monergism books the average Christian has easy access to hundreds of thousands of books. No longer restricted to the local public library and the church library, Christians can buy all sorts of books that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to and via the internet have access to opinions that once were unreachable. This unprecedented access is leading to dramatic change today just as it did nearly five hundred years ago. People are asking questions and finding out that many, many others have the same questions. The flipping of the switch that turned on the internet in many ways is our modern day version of nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
Like the original Radical Reformation, the new found freedom has led to many excesses. In the Radical Reformation, all manner of kooks found an outlet. Freed from tight controls, some people invariably will go too far. It is like business casual dress. Most workplaces no longer require suits and ties for men and skirts and hose for women. That is great for the most part but in every office I have worked in there are those who take it too far, wearing clothes to work that would make a prostitute blush or dressing like you literally just rolled out of bed. In the same fashion on a much larger scale, people freed from the bounds of tradition invariably are going to spawn a few bad apples. In the Radical Reformation those bad apples led to the Munster Rebellion and the Zwickau Prophets. Today we see all sorts of excesses, less violent for sure but just as troubling. Dangerous doctrines like denying salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, the sufficiency of the Scriptures and the exclusive nature of Christ as the only path to redemption have all crept back in to the church.
For far too many people, the excesses of a few are reason to reject the whole. That is unnecessary and unhealthy. Just as the extremists and heretics in the original Radical Reformation died out and left behind a wonderful heritage in the mainstream Anabaptists (a heritage that I would argue is at the heart of most evangelical churches and the very establishment of the United States), so too I believe that God’s people, armed with His Word and indwelt by the Spirit, will stand fast for the faith once for all delivered to the saints and those seeking to poison the church will eventually grow weary and move on to greener pastures. God’s people will survive and honestly this turmoil is good for the church because in far too many ways the church has grown flabby, comfortable and complacent. Content to be an acceptable social structure in the broader secular community, the church has essentially lost its witness to the world.
There are many other similarities between the original and modern Radical Reformation. As in the Radical Reformation, we find that those who question the status quo today are all lumped together. Just like all Radical Reformers are lumped together as “Anabaptists” even though many of the most infamous bear no similarity to the majority of Anabaptists, so too any who dares raise their hand today and ask “Why?” are shouted down as part and parcel of some heretical camp. The entrenched traditional forces are lashing out at those with the temerity to ask questions but in doing so the tone and anger is such that the defenders of tradition finds themselves increasingly out of the conversation, relegated to blogging at each other and harrumphing about them durn lib’rals.
One major difference is that at least in this iteration of the Radical Reformation, the forces of tradition don’t have the ability to put dissenters to death. Unable to wield a literal sword, they are reduced to the sword of mockery. Instead of burning “heretics” at the stake, they now burn strawmen. Some (perhaps much) of what has come out of this new Radical Reformation is both silly and dangerous and frankly deserves to be examined, found to be in error and discarded. Unfortunately what is actually happening is that in place of a scalpel and a discerning, keen eye, we have a sledgehammer and a blindfold. Many blogs I read as recently as a year ago I find insufferable to read today. In the witch hunt to root out heterodoxy, many defenders of tradition are incapable and unwilling to examine their own firmly held traditions. In doing so they become guilty of the same sort of errors, of a different sort but errors nonetheless, of those that they spend so much time attacking. When men like Jim Belcher write a very mild attempt to reconcile competing camps, he is attacked by the watchdogs of orthodoxy for being insufficiently virulent.
Let me be clear again, there are plenty of people teaching squirrely doctrines. That does not mean that everyone who questions the status quo is a heretic and frankly it is utterly unhelpful to paint everyone with the same broad brush. We stand amidst a sea change in the church. Rather than playing the part of the Inquisitors, orthodox thinkers would be far more useful being involved in the conversation. Change is coming and in many ways this change is a good thing! I so desire to see the church become a light to the world, a radical witness of changed lives and a place of sending out Christian to proclaim the risen Lord instead of a social club. I for one would rather be involved in being a voice that is willing to ask “Why?’ but still be a champion for orthodoxy than be a spectator throwing stones from the safe confines of my local church or seminary.
Viva la Radical Reformation!