We haven’t hit the month of October yet, and already I have read so much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that I would just assume be done with it. Actually, that’s a lie. I could probably read articles about the Reformation until kingdom come. I am what is popularly called a history geek. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that this year has been so full of solas, beer steins, and papal anathemas that I hesitated to add to the deluge unless I had something to say that was rather different from what had already been said.
Well, here’s something you may not have heard from many Protestants this year: the Reformation was a tragedy. Yes, you read that correctly. In the midst of all this celebrating, I think we ought to take some time to mourn what we have lost. Great damage has been done to the cause of Christian unity, and 500 years later we have yet to recover.
“Hold on a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you suggesting that the Protestants were wrong to break away from Rome? Do you really believe we should ignore major doctrinal errors in order to maintain a superficial unity?” No, that is not what I am saying at all. There are certainly aspects of the Reformation that we should be celebrating. The recovery of the doctrines known as the Five Solas (scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone) was an absolutely essential development in the history of Christianity. Many of today’s doctrinal errors occur when we fail to cling to those biblical principles. Even so, I think we must celebrate with a twinge of sadness.
Those of us who strive to be faithful Christians are always torn between two competing impulses. On the one hand, we must cling to the truth of God’s Word, without which there is no Christianity at all. On the other, we must acknowledge that our God disdains discord and sacrificed Himself to make communion possible. These twin impulses are always at work within us, and all too often we are forced into situations that force us to choose between the two.
Christ and His apostles never taught anything but a single united Church. Consider what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. “The glory which You gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23)
The Apostle Paul also stressed this unity we have with each other through union with Christ. He told the church in Ephesus, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6) Elsewhere, Paul wrote the following.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.
1 Corinthians 12:12-14
In addition to stressing this unity, Paul also had a thing or two to say regarding the divisions that were occurring in the Church. In the case of division brought about by heresy, Paul certainly condemned the false teachers and stressed the need for God’s people to be set apart. However, he also warned against the creation of factions centered on particular teachers. (See 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 3:1-8) We must therefore conclude that there are some cases where division is necessary and others where it is not.
Despite that distinction, we must admit that all division is ultimately caused by discord. This could be the result of an improper understanding of the Word of God, or it could simply be caused by what I call political/personality issues. It is certainly legitimate at times to break off fellowship due to doctrinal errors. In fact, it may be essential in order to maintain our Christian witness and hold to biblical truth. However, we must acknowledge that this is still a division in the Church and therefore something tragic. It is a failure to meet the ideal that Christ spoke about in John chapter 17.
Here we hit up against another issue. When we speak of the Church, do we mean the body of true believers known only to God, or all those who claim the title of Christian? Which group did Christ expect to maintain unity? In our ideal world, the two groups would be the same: that is, all people who call themselves Christians would actually be united to Christ in a saving manner. Friends, we do not live in that world, however much we might wish for it. Many go to church on Sunday of whom the Apostle John said, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us…” (1 John 2:19a)
I admit that there is no possibility of unity in what is known as the visible Church, for not all who belong to it are true believers who have had their hearts changed by the Holy Spirit. Many forsake part or all of the Word of God. It would not be possible to achieve complete unity with such “Christians” without compromising things that are indispensable. However, the unity of the invisible Church (the Elect believers united to Christ) is maintained by the Spirit. We may have discord here for a time, but only the invisible Church has any hope of eternal unity.
Although we cannot expect to maintain unity with people who have abandoned core tenets of the faith, I would submit that our division from them is still a tragedy. It is a tragedy because we long for them to come to a true understanding of God’s Word so that we might experience real communion. It is a tragedy because “Christians” who are not truly Christians are just as condemned and lost in their sin as those who have no connection to the Church at all.
Prior to the Reformation, there was more visible unity in the Church. However, it was not a true and complete unity. For one thing, the see of Rome had split with the Eastern Church hundreds of years earlier, a division every bit as tragic as the one we commemorate this year. For another, the unity championed by Rome was maintained by persecuting dissenters and neglecting to set or enforce strict standards in certain areas of doctrine. Within medieval Catholicism, there were a variety of opinions on things like the sacraments and predestination. It was only as a result of the Reformation that many Catholic doctrines we now take for granted were formally codified.
Thus, the unity that existed in the Western Church prior to the Reformation was not a true unity. When people like Martin Luther took a stand for a more biblical understanding of justification, Rome condemned them as heretics. The Reformers then had a choice: maintain a supposed unity founded upon doctrinal error, or deny the authority of the Pope and attempt to restore proper doctrine. Most of these Reformers believed in the principle of a true Church that ought to be united. However, they came to believe that the Roman Church was in fact a false church spreading false teaching. That is why they had no choice but to divide.
The decision to split from Rome was therefore a necessary one, and we should celebrate the bravery of those men (and women!) who stood up for gospel truth at great personal cost. We should treasure the stream of good theology that came out of that Reformation. However, our joy must be mixed with lament. We should never look upon our Catholic brethren with an air of superiority and congratulate ourselves with the words, “Thank you, God, that I am not like those sinners.” No, we should be filled with sorrow. We must long for the true unity that we will have in heaven, when all God’s children will sit together at the wedding feast of the Lamb. We should pray that those who have fallen into error might be restored. If we can no longer feel the pain of discord, we no longer have the heart of Christ.
Even as divorce is a sad thing, regardless of who is at fault, a division in the Church is always a sad thing. Any discord that occurs in this world is a tragedy, for it is the result of sin. Although divisions may be necessary under certain circumstances, let us remember what the Apostle John said. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 John 4:20-21)
Although some nominal Christians are not true believers, the Lord Jesus commanded us to love all our neighbors, including our enemies. Therefore, even when we must disagree, let us do so with love and grace. As we stop to celebrate the Reformation, let us also mourn the potential unity that has been lost. We must always strive for biblical reconciliation.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.