First in the series “Re-form: Discovering the Once and Future Church”
One of the things I’ve noticed about living in Monument, and particularly in our Jackson Creek neighborhood, is that people tend to go crazy for yard sales. It’s not the season for them right now, but come spring everyone will be looking to do a little house cleaning and get rid of some of the stuff that’s accumulated over the years. Some will bundle those used treasures off to Goodwill, but others will simply lay them out in the driveway in hopes that someone will come and haggle over their value and make a little money in the process.
Interestingly, those same people who sell their junk are also usually the ones to go and buy someone else’s junk at another yard sale! When I was serving in Park City, the youth group had a rummage sale fundraiser every year. One year, someone brought in a poker table to sell and sell it did. But, curiously, the same table showed up again the following year and the year after that. It had simply been passed from one family to another—apparently it wasn’t bringing the new owners any more luck than the previous ones! It was a reminder to me of the old adage—what comes around goes around.
What’s true for the trash and treasure of a yard sale is also true historically. It’s often been said that history repeats itself, but that’s not completely accurate. It’s better to say that history tends to move in cycles, patterns that repeat though never in exactly the same way. There’s no better example of this than the history of the Christian church. In fact, church historian Phyllis Tickle (who sadly passed away in 2015) was famous for saying that every 500 years the church is compelled to have a giant rummage sale in which it trots out things that have accumulated—things like doctrines, traditions, and practices—and sorts through them to see what should be kept and what should be discarded. The goal is to simplify and keep what is most valuable and useful.
At about the 500 year mark of the birth of Christianity, the Council of Chalcedon met during the waning days of the Roman empire to codify what constituted Christian doctrine after four centuries of wrangling and rogue heretical movements had sprung up. The idea was to get at the core of what it meant to be Christian and what the church believed about Jesus. About 500 years after that, in 1054, the Great Schism took place between Eastern and Western Christianity over issues like the source of the Holy Spirit (does the Spirit proceed only from the Father, or from both the Father and the Son?), whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used during communion, and the jurisdiction of the pope. Those ideas seem like a tempest in a teapot to modern ears, but they were huge issues in the early stages of Christendom.
Five hundred years after that came most familiar to us of those rummage sales—the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the cathedral church in Wittenberg, which is considered the start of the Reformation (even though it was brewing well before that and no one can say for sure whether Luther actually nailed them to the door, but I digress…). Luther had a lot of ideas about things that the Roman church needed to put out in the driveway, the biggest of which was the practice of selling indulgences. A “tradition” had evolved that would allow someone to substitute actual repentance for sins with a huge sum of money, or to redeem a loved one from purgatory with a similar large donation. The result was what we might call a “pay for pray” system that Luther and some others believed was contrary to Scripture. Most of the common people went along with it because they couldn’t read the Scriptures for themselves—it was usually written in Latin and chained to the pulpit in the church, meaning only the church authorities could read it and, of course, misuse abounded.
Luther proposed that the church jettison such destructive and unbiblical practices and get back to basics. He proposed the church instead retain three basic necessities—what we now know as the three “solas” — sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone). These are the foundation of Protestant Christianity—the doctrine that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone as outlined by Scripture alone.
Luther’s manifesto touched off a firestorm of activity in the 16th century world. Fueled by the relatively new technology of the printing press (which Gutenberg invented in 1440), the Reformation spread and touched off not only a religious revolution within Christianity but a cultural revolution in the West as well. In fact, many historians argue that the Reformation is actually what made the modern world, for good or ill.
The Reformation Launched the Modern World
Take, for example, Luther’s insistence on sola Scriptura. As the Bible began to be printed in the native languages of various people in Europe, it was immediately followed by a massive increase in literacy. More people began to read than ever before, and because they began reading Scripture for themselves they also began to form their own interpretations and opinions. Indeed, you could argue that there was not one singular Protestant Reformation, but multiple ones. As soon as the Reformation began, it began to fragment over matters of interpretation and practice. This is the reason why we have so many Protestant denominations today—everyone gets to decide what they want to keep and what they want to throw away.
But the other side to that is that the massive increase in literacy led to an increase in learning and curiosity about the world. The Enlightenment is the direct result of the Reformation and brought us huge advances in science and medicine. Those are good things, of course—no one would want to go back to 15th century medicine, for example—but the unintended consequence was that the increase in scientific learning meant that many people began to see the world in terms of a separation between scientific discovery and religion. The more that was understood about the world, the less God was needed, it seemed to follow. Science and empiricism began to become the public focus while religion and Christianity in particular were becoming more and more privatized.
The result of all of that was a series of what we might call secular reformations or revolutions—the industrial revolution, the various political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the Americas, the technological revolution of the last few decades and even the sexual revolution are all the result of this separation of God from creation, body from soul, and production from personhood.
That is, admittedly, a very simplistic explanation, but the last 500 years since the Reformation have been a sea change in Western culture. Think of the things that have emerged just in our lifetime. The technology of the internet and the smartphone have revolutionized human life in ways far more impactful than Gutenberg’s printing press. We have more technology and information than ever, and yet we also live in a world that seems to be quite miserable on the whole. Two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism, disease, broken families—we have become more sophisticated and more broken all at the same time.
It’s little wonder, then, that the church also finds itself at another 500 year decision point. How do we respond to these changes? What are the things that really matter? How do we continue to be the church in a world that has seemingly rejected God? We once enjoyed about a thousand years of Christendom—but now it is becoming increasingly more difficult and even dangerous to be a Christian. It’s time for another rummage sale and a new Reformation—but what will that look like?
Whereas some believe this is a dark time for the church, I believe it’s a time of opportunity. Remember that Christianity grew most rapidly when it was a persecuted minority. It took people of courage and boldness to point out a different way of living and being in a hostile and broken culture. I believe that the same is true now—that the church is primed for a revival.
But how do we go about it? We could come up with another set of theses and tack them on a door somewhere—maybe on the front doors of tech giant like Google, or on the doors of the US capitol, or maybe, like Luther, on the doors of our conference and denominational offices (trust me, I thought of that a couple of months ago). But there’s another model of reformation to consider, and it’s one that goes all the way back to the Old Testament. The Bible reveals a similar historical pattern to the one we’ve seen over the last two thousand years—a cycle of apostasy and reform. There are lots of mini-reformations through the Scriptures, times when God’s people got sucked into the vortex of the surrounding culture and were threatened with spiritual extinction, but then some bold people stepped up and called people back to the basics. One of the most prominent of those reforms were the ones that took place under King Josiah in the 7th century BC. It’s here that I think we find the model for reform that can really change the world.
The Reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23)
To understand the impact of Josiah’s reforms, you have to go back a little bit in Israel’s history—back to Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh, who is widely believed to have been the worst king they ever had. Manasseh bought into the paganism of the surrounding Canaanite culture in a big way—to the point of even setting up pagan altars in God’s holy temple. He adopted the worldview of the culture and put service to Yahweh in a privatized nook off to the side, much like the culture of our own day. And, like our culture, Canaanite religion had a fairly mechanistic view of the world. No, they didn’t have science, but they did believe that all of the elements of the universe were mechanically controlled by the gods. Manipulating those gods with the right rituals meant that you could, in some way, control the universe—which is what many secularists believe they can do today. Not only that, the Canaanites also denigrated the human body with practices such as child sacrifice and an overly active obsession with sex. The Canaanite gods make people like Harvey Weinstein and Hugh Hefner look tame by comparison, and the sexual rituals that appeased them were bizarre, hedonistic, and attractive to those one the outside.
Manasseh led Israel down this path and he reigned for 55 years. His reign indicated how far away from the faithful days of David that the kingdom had fallen. There’s no worse indictment in the Scriptures than to be labeled as one “who did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes” (2 Kings 21:2). Manasseh’s successor, his son Amon, only ruled for two years when he was assassinated.
But then, at the beginning of 2 Kings 22, we learn that the new King Josiah, who was only 8 years old when he came to the throne, was of quite a different sort. “He did what was right in the Lord’s eyes and walked in the ways of his ancestor David—not deviating from it even a bit to the right or left” (v. 2). Here was an unlikely reformer—he had had bad examples, he was very young and impressionable, and power hungry people might want to bump him off—and yet he gets a designation that few of Israel’s kings received. He did what was right—he became that courageous reformer who would toss out the garbage and hold on to what was precious. His story is not only inspirational, it’s a model for those of us who believe that a new reformation is necessary.
The Four Stages of Reform
It’s a model that emerges in four stages: It begins with Josiah’s own faith walk, his own personal relationship with God—indeed, that’s where all reform begins. In the second stage, Josiah brings the word of God to his people, proclaiming that God is in charge. In stage 3, Josiah begins the work of purging Israel from all the influences of the surrounding culture—he holds a massive rummage sale and, lastly, in stage 4 he re-institutes practices that can make the reformation last—in his case, the Passover celebration. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at each of these stages and discussing what they might teach us about being people of reform.
Reform begins with returning to our First Love
In the end, however, real reform always comes down to one thing—it’s about maintaining your first love. That’s why I included the reading from Revelation this morning. The church at Ephesus had done many great things and had a great history, but like most movements they had lost momentum and were beginning to be influenced by other forces that cluttered their thinking. They had “let go of the love [they] had at first.” John, inspired by God, writes to them the words that launch a reformation: “Remember the high point from which you have fallen. Change your hearts and lives and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:5).
I believe God is saying the same thing to his church today—it’s time for another rummage sale, time to purge, to consider what matters, and get back to doing what the church is supposed to do. History tells us that revival usually happens at times of great crisis—will we be ready and willing to be part of the new reformation?
Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Baker Books, 2008.
This series was inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Sandra Richter as the Newroom Conference in Franklin, TN, in September 2017.