Should we still celebrate the Reformation?

Member loyalty to church denominations has waned. That’s also true in the Christian Reformed Church. In fact, for some years most new CRC congregations have avoided including “Christian Reformed” in their name. Church planters think the denominational name will confuse the uninitiated. Instead, calling themselves a “community” and incorporating a more broadly Christian (generic) phrase such as “New Life” or “Fellowship” will better serve the neighbours they hope to reach, they believe.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it does have this result: potential church members have no idea that such congregations actually do come out of a long and distinct faith tradition within Christian history. Does that matter?

Behind that question is this one: “Should we still celebrate the Reformation? Should the Calvinism that grew out of the 16th century Reformation matter to 21st century congregations, to how we worship, what we hear in sermons, what we sing, how we live in the world?

Reformation Day is October 31, the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, protesting biblical errors and papal/clerical abuse in the Roman church in which he himself was still a priest. Luther had no initial inkling of starting a new church, much less a movement that would fundamentally shake and re-form the ecclesiastical world and the world in general. But God had plans for the renewal of Christ’s Body on earth, using Luther, Calvin, Knox and the other Reformers in astonishing ways.

Most who know Calvin’s work agree that he stands as one of the most astute biblical commentators and thinkers in the history of the church. That alone is cause for joy in the Reformation. But if it also means shunning all things Roman Catholic, we need to rethink.

Having fellowship with Catholics – at a local food bank, at pro-life rallies, or even in neighbourhood Bible studies – is the kind of unity Christians who differ can have that demonstrates our love for our common Saviour. Yet that kind of unity is quite different from presuming there are no longer any important differences between the Catholic Church and the Reformation churches, and that perhaps we should reunite. Did you know – the current pope’s gregarious sociability notwithstanding – that the Roman church still teaches that it is “the one true church”? That unbiblical teaching did not get “reformed” in the 16th century, or subsequently. It is one of an important handful of fundamental Catholic teachings that should still give us children of the Reformation serious pause, even while we work together with Catholics on social or political issues.

Hold firm
There’s no virtue in being contentious. Schism can be ugly. But so can heresy. And heresy is deadly. St. Paul makes clear that “doctrine” is of utmost importance. He says that maturity in Christ – being a real, grown-up Christian capable of carrying our cross, whatever God wills that – will ground us in such a way as to prevent being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14, ESV). Importantly, Paul puts resisting the “winds” of false teaching in the context of “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3, NIV).

In Titus 1 Paul tells church elders they must “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” Why? “So that [they] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” And Paul tells Timothy to carefully watch not only his life, but his doctrine, and to “persevere in them” because the repercussions will be eternal: “If you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The Apostle John bluntly says that “anyone who runs ahead” and does not “continue in” the teachings of Christ does not have God (2 John 1). And “anyone who welcomes [such a person] shares in their wicked work” (v. 11). Does that sound benighted to you? What John, and Paul, know is that false teaching – now, as then – distorts the Gospel and the Saviour and God at its heart; and it has horrific eternal consequences for both those doing the distorting and those accepting it. So every church that confesses Christ as Lord must shun false teachings and teachers.

Of course no earthly church attains perfection. But the reforms nurtured by Calvin 500 years ago developed a theology and a worldview that still allow us who follow in his tradition to drink deeply of the Bible’s life-giving waters, and then to infuse them into every corner of our lives, to God’s glory. That’s worth celebrating.

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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