Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. [Hebrews 13:8-9a (NLT)]
Two weeks ago, in recognition of Reformation Day (commemorating Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517), the minister at our liturgical church spoke about needed reforms in today’s church. By definition, reformation is changing or improving something by correcting its faults, removing inconsistencies and abuses, and imposing modern methods and values. While I firmly believe in correcting errors, removing contradictions and misuses, and even using modern methods, I would suggest caution about adopting modern values.
If a pilot is off course by even one degree, he will miss his landing area by 92 feet for every mile flown or one mile for every sixty miles. Just one degree off course when flying from JFK to LAX would land us in the Pacific Ocean rather than on a runway! It’s as important for the church to stay on course as it is for a pilot. If we think of God and His Word as true north, we want to set our spiritual course in His direction. Church reform is necessary whenever we find ourselves veering off course, and reforms in the church are always justified when they bring us back to true north and Christ.
Since few people in Martin Luther’s day had read the Bible, they depended on the church to tell them what it said and meant. Luther, however, believed that Scripture, not papal decree or tradition, had the final word. When using the Bible’s words as the sole reliable source of instruction, he found that many church practices didn’t match Christ’s teachings. He felt the church had gotten off course by selling indulgences to reduce a sinner’s (or his loved one’s) time in Purgatory (a sort of way station before getting to heaven). His reading of Romans led him to understand that salvation was by grace through faith alone (in opposition to the church’s view that good works had a part in salvation). When posting those theses, Martin Luther wasn’t trying to start a new religion; he was trying to reform the old one. Rather than taking a new route, he was trying to get the church back on the correct one. When the church didn’t change direction, Luther did, leading to the Protestant Reformation.
I certainly support modern reforms that make the church more effective such as contemporary music and services, online giving, apps, streaming, e-blasts and newsletters, video studies, and strategic partnerships in giving, service projects, and missions. I’m far more cautious about reforms that modernize the church to bring it into the 21st century’s mindset! While course correction is necessary when the church veers off track, we must be wary of changing course just to head where everyone else is going. We must never dumb down the Gospel, disregard the parts we find troubling, jettison teachings that seem old-fashioned, or preach what people want to hear as opposed to what God wants said!
While researching Jesus’s feeding of the multitude, I came upon a sermon given by a pastor at a mainline Protestant church. Reframing this miracle to make it more believable, he claimed that everyone shared the little food they had that day. While getting 5,000 men and another 10,000 women and children to share their food probably qualifies as a miracle, that’s not what the gospels say happened. All four accounts are specific about the amount of food available: five loaves and two fish! Nevertheless, this pastor made a true but unbelievable story more palatable for those who had difficulty swallowing it. That’s the sort of church reform of which we must be cautious! After all, if we can’t believe Jesus could feed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, how can we believe He brought Lazarus back to life, rose from the dead, or ascended into heaven?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church,” and defined it as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession…. grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, A.W. Tozer called the difference between “the old cross and the new.” The way of Christ does not parallel the world but intersects it, wrote Tozer. The gospel message does not change with the times; right and wrong, righteousness and sin, are not determined by what society finds acceptable but by God and His Word.
Christians are not supposed to look and act like everyone else; we’re supposed to march to a different drummer: Jesus Christ. While we are called to live at peace with everybody, we are not supposed to behave like them or compromise our beliefs and morals. We have been called to bring Christ into the world as His disciples, not as his press agents. Our job is to make Jesus known rather than make Him more acceptable to the 21st century. We aren’t supposed to reform the church to look like the world; our task is to reform the world to look more like Christ!