There Was No Protestant Reformation
There was a significant amount of fanfare this past year to mark the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Former President Barack Obama and current German Chancellor Angela Merkel headlined a major event in May to celebrate not only the massive religious but also cultural and political transformation sparked by the 16th century Catholic monk turned rebel pastor and theologian, Martin Luther. October 31st of 1517, All Hallows Eve, is the traditional birth date of Protestantism where Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, criticizing the Roman Catholic Church's practice of essentially selling salvation or a reprieve from purgatory through the purchase of "indulgences".
Over the past year I have also taken serious time to reflect on this historic marker, especially given my serious struggles and questioning of my evangelical heritage. I'll come back to this in a few minutes, but first I have to share a recent epiphany I had about the Protestant Reformation and that is...there never was one! That's right, I would like to submit to you that the Protestant Reformation is a myth.
what is reform(ation)?
I have no problem with the use of the word 'Protestant', for protest is something that Luther and a host of other leaders, both religious and political, did in spades during that time and one could argue ever since. My beef is with the word 'reformation'. Not to be a definition stickler, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, 'reformation' means, "The action or process of reforming an institution or practice." A present day example that I am very familiar with is the discussion of 'immigration reform'. In that conversation it is clear that we are talking about social reform through legislative revision. But it is clearly stated if not implied that these changes are happening within a society or institution. But that is not what Luther and Co achieved. To say that they were a part of a reformation would be like saying that the United Kingdom voted to reform the European Union ('BrExit') or that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were trying to reform the British Empire. If Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al. were reformers then they were lousy ones at that! The end result was a departure from the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of entirely new church organizations or what we commonly call denominations, not to mention nation-states.
implications for evangelicalism
A few months ago I came to a pretty important conclusion. I believe that American Evangelicalism, as seen in its culture and institutions, is, with very few exceptions, beyond reform. Aside from a few outliers or what some might call a "righteous remnant", I believe that the errant beliefs, values and behaviors I previously wrote about in The REAL Quadrilateral and the two part series on the Idols of Evangelicalism are so entrenched in the American evangelical community and its institutions (churches, denominations, colleges and seminaries, associations and networks, etc.) that it is incapable of recovering from its self-inflicted wounds.
If you agree with me, where does that leave us? For those of us who profess to follow Jesus and who have been active and committed in this community, what options do we have? There is, as I see it, really only two options.
You can choose to stay. You may disagree with my assertion that the evangelical church in America is beyond reform. If so, you can continue to bind together with other like-minded people and fight for change. In a future post, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on what you can do to attempt to effect change. I say attempt, because my personal opinion is that it will be a futile effort. Rather I think you need to brace yourself for a calling similar to that of the Prophet Jeremiah, where you and others like you will fail in terms of accomplishing true, sustainable reform, but you will leave behind a courageous prophetic witness and warning to future generations of followers of Jesus to not take the path that the evangelical church took in the United States.
Get out. I mean it. If you don't have a Jeremiah-like calling, you need to get out. It's a environment that is largely toxic to faith and emotionally manipulative. To recruit someone new to following Jesus into American evangelicalism feels like the inspiration behind Jesus' rebuke of the pharisees:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)
So unless you feel you need to join the ranks of weeping prophets, take the Martin Luther route. Rebel. Start something new. But first, dust off your sandals and leave evangelicalism.
Respect for that decision
While I might have my opinions, ultimately I respect the choice of every Christian in America who feels they are faced with this decision. My very first post in Faith v Religion should have made it obvious what decision I made. But I have very good friends who feel called to the other option. Both those who choose to stay or go will play a very important role in ushering in a new era of a vitalized, timeless faith along with advancing a truly just peace for all our neighbors.
Quick note: If this article/podcast resonated with you and you want to be a part of an online community where you can encourage and be encouraged, please check out our closed Recovering Evangelicals Facebook group.