In the middle of emergence?

October 31 looms.

When I was a kid October 31 presented a conundrum for people in my community. Would we trick-or-treat or would we go to church? All the people I knew – church, school and family – were Christian Reformed. October 31 is Reformation Day and our denomination celebrated it as representing the day our tradition left the Catholic Church. Phrases like “all men are prophet, priest and king” and “sola Scriptura” demonstrated our resistance to papal authority. We were grateful for our distinctive Christian perspective and a little arrogant about the fact that we saw God’s truth so clearly.

I don’t celebrate Reformation Day anymore. Today I believe more fully in ecumenism, and while I am still in the Reformed tradition I think celebrating a split in the church is a mistake. I have also come to understand something intriguing about church history.

Many people feel that the church is in crisis. Some point to declining numbers in church attendance; some highlight what they see as an attack on religious liberty and Christian values; others talk about the secularism that has captured both Canada and the United States.

It can be easy to start thinking of our own time as a disaster, which is when the perspective of history becomes really important.

The rhythm of change
Phyllis Tickle is an American scholar who writes on issues of religion and spirituality. She has written dozens of books but the one that has been particularly important to me is 2008’s The Great Emergence. Tickle and other scholars point out that every 500 years or so the Christian church has experienced transitions that caused tremendous upheaval. It was about 500 years from the time of Christ to the time of Pope Gregory. When Gregory lived, Italy was in crisis. There were violent takeovers, famine and the plague. The church was in disarray, but Gregory reorganized and revitalized it around monasteries and convents. He developed a church hierarchy that challenged the political hierarchy. He refocused the church to think about what it means to be a servant of God.

Then it was another 500 years to the Great Schism. The Schism centered on theological and ecclesiastical differences, dividing the church into Eastern Orthodox and Catholic. One of the biggest issues was the infallibility of the Pope. We can imagine how difficult it would be to live in a time when part of the church denied the infallibility of a central figure of the church.

Another 500 years brought us the Reformation, dividing Protestants from Catholics. Again, major theological differences focused on the role of the Pope, the role of God’s grace and what it really means to serve God.

Tickle suggests that we are at another 500 year point now – living in the midst of a transition. We feel that it’s a crisis, things are being upended. But Tickle says that this can be a learning period, not necessarily a bad thing. She says that each of these periods brought revitalization to the church. And after each transition the Christian faith spread.

Our current state of transition can be characterized as a conversation between those who believe Scripture alone holds all truth and those who believe community also holds God’s truth. Today we see Christians more willing to say that everyone contributes to our understanding of who Christ is. If we think of Pope Gregory as emphasizing hierarchy, and the Reformation as emphasizing the democracy of believers, Tickle says today’s younger Christians bring a new vision to the church. They emphasize egalitarianism. No humans can capture God, but all humans who seek God can contribute to our understanding of who God is and how Christ wanted us to live.

This is scary for many. But it is an opportunity also. Scholars like Tickle help me understand what I am seeing in my students. Today I find that students are not interested in being instructed in a Reformed way of thinking as the only way. But they are interested in it as one way of understanding God. If I am interested in the future of the church I have to face this and I have to understand it. History helps. The church may be in a period of emergence, but God holds us. We must trust this and we must not be afraid.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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