Sunday, November 1, 2015

The one divorce Christians celebrate

I wonder how many people celebrating Luther's posting of the 95 thesis have actually read them. For one thing, they are amazingly Catholic. For another, they only really cover the sale of indulgences.

When I was younger I was under the impression that Luther defiantly nailed a list of 95 problems with the Roman Catholic Church to that door in Wittenberg. Later I learned that this was actually really common practice when posting questions for debate, which is exactly what Luther was doing. He was asking for debate over a single subject. A very Catholic subject.
To be sure within 13 years Luther would be reduced to calling Catholics "papist asses", but you'd never know it from reading the 95 thesis, which contains such statements as:
25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish.
But all this is secondary to the idea I've been trying to get into words for the last hour or so: What a sad thing to celebrate.

No matter which side of the reformation you find yourself on, one thing is for certain: We are not a unified church, and I can think of nothing sadder. Celebrating our fragmentation is like celebrating a divorce. Christ says in John 17:

20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."
That they may become perfectly one. Perfectly. One cannot argue that Christians today are perfectly one. Perfect is too high a standard. There are major contradictory teachings on issues of great importance. We disagree on things as basic as how one attains salvation! Let alone the role of baptism! Maybe we should not celebrate the existence of such great schisms.

For a millennium after Christ the Church existed as one more or less unified body. Even up until the 16th century there were only two or three major divisions, and they were more similar than not. So whether or not you think the Reformation is still a necessary thing today, this day should be a day that reminds us of our failure to be one. Of our failure to show the world the perfect unity of God's love.

This is a day of sadness. The painful anniversary of a divorce that literally caused wars. It feels odd to see so many of my friends celebrating it.


  1. Two remarks, briefly:

    First, unity is not our highest calling. It is, indeed, our call to be one; Christ utters the call, and the apostles repeat it. But the call to be unified is, first and foremost, a call to be unified with the mind of Christ; our unity with our fellow believers is falls naturally out of the fact that we all, first, are unified with the Lord. And where these two ideals are in conflict - where the thing that we understand Christ to command is incompatible with the thing that we understand another Christian to teach - we follow Christ, even at the cost of a break with our fellow Christians. There's ample evidence of that priority in the New Testament, and both our denominations continue to practice it today.

    So when we, as Protestants, celebrate the Reformation - whether as part of "Reformation Day," which, sure, is a little silly and arbitrary, or just in general - we're not celebrating the division of the church. We'd rather all Christians agreed on this point! But we're celebrating that the church, which as best we can judge strayed from Christ's teaching, took steps back in the right direction. We're celebrating... well, a reformation. And if we're correct on this point, that's certainly something that should be celebrated - shouldn't it? How could we believe that Christians had moved closer to the truth, and not celebrate?

    It might be argued that the celebration should be tempered by mourning for our disunity - for our divorce, as you put it. So, second: the idea that the church is in a fundamental state of disunion in the sense you put here is a Catholic belief; it's not one all other denominations share. If you claim Christ, you can take full communion in any church I've ever been a part of, whatever your denomination. We're going to teach that you're wrong about some things - but it doesn't follow that you're a fundamentally different type of Christian, or that you're cut off from us in some deeper sense than "kinda wrong" and "differently organized."

    So of course we don't mourn the divorce of the church - we don't consider ourselves divorced from Rome. At the heart of the matter, we don't really think we were ever married to Rome in the first place - we're more like siblings who can disagree a little more openly now.

    Would that all Christians had precisely the mind of Christ; goodness knows none of us do. But you can't really criticize us for not viewing the Reformation like Catholics - that was, after all, rather the point.

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