OPINION: Always reforming

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, so the saying goes -- “The church is always reforming.” Those words came to mind last week when I heard sociologist-prophet-iconoclast Tony Campolo preach at the New Baptist Covenant II meeting, that multiracial effort at affecting Baptist connectionalism.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, so the saying goes -- “The church is always reforming.” 

Those words came to mind last week when I heard sociologist-prophet-iconoclast Tony Campolo preach at the New Baptist Covenant II meeting, that multiracial effort at affecting Baptist connectionalism in a more sustaining way.

Bill Leonard
He began by suggesting that he was “speaking on behalf of” a group of “young and up-coming” religious leaders who “represent the church of the future.” Addressing what appeared to be a considerably more seasoned crowd, Campolo noted that while “huge numbers of young people are leaving the church,” those who choose to remain reflect a “seismic shift” in theological reflection. 

That transition, he believes, is evident in a move “from Pauline theology” to a new understanding of Jesus. He suggested that such Pauline theology reflects the legacy of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and its recovery of the idea of justification by faith (Romans 1:17) as personified in Martin Luther’s spiritual and ecclesiastical quest. 

Campolo concluded: “The Reformation made us Paul’s disciples.” He asserted that the church is experiencing another Reformation, evident in a new generation of Christians less concerned for reading Jesus “through the eyes of Paul,” than reading “Paul through the eyes of Jesus.” 

This Christian cohort, he says, is “imbued with Jesus, and that is scary.” Campolo quotes one of those new Reformers, Shane Claiborne, who believes that Jesus was not “kidding” then or now in his Sermon on the Mount.

Campolo’s observations came while I was grading papers (not during his sermon) written by divinity school students in response to Three Treatises, 1520, in which Martin Luther set forth his reforming ideals. Several students linked that movement to the current necessity for churchly change. With their permission and anonymity I quote the following:

  • “A thousand years ago there was the Great Schism [1054], 500 years ago there was the Protestant Reformation, and now the next reformation is taking place. And I see signs of this all around. I see signs of Christians questioning the constructed norms -- asking why certain people aren’t being heard and cared for. They are asking -- what would it look like to bring theology in conversation with the current human experience and refuse to rigidly keep our Christian understanding stagnant ‘because that’s the way it’s always been?’ We have moved from papal supremacy to Sola Scripture [Scripture Alone], but now what? I hope that [Phyllis] Tickle is right and that we are in the midst of another Reformation. Luther wrote that it was right to ‘restore freedom to everyman and leave everyman free to marry or not marry.’ I believe that another reformation is needed to ‘restore freedom’ -- to challenge assumptions that have now become tradition.”
  • “Perhaps these [Luther’s] writings can call us to be more accepting of the prophetic voices within our midst. Many times we fear the voice of prophesy because of the paradigm set in the Reformation. Reform means division. It is time to set a new paradigm. It is time to stick it out with the people of God instead of running to the newest denominational body with which we agree.”
  • “There continue to be movements that resist the proliferation of lofty titles, corpse-cold rituals, and the gaps that arise between the Church and the life of the Christ.... This evidence suggests that perhaps the Church should not become complacent solely because the Reformation happened, but rather should be seeking ways to continually reform.”

These are voices and ideas to be taken seriously, especially as church leaders lament the fact that “we can’t seem to attract the younger generation” or fret that their churches may close down before this generation of ministers’ reaches mid-career!

So here’s a thought: what if various Baptist groups (let’s say Progressive National Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Alliance of Baptists) determined to have national programs where all the plenary speakers were age 45 and under?  Give them voice sooner rather than later and hear what they have to say.

In 1521 Luther, called before the Diet of Worms, was given “safe conduct” to answer for his heresy, but silenced when attempting to defend his views. Let’s give a new generation of Reformers “safe conduct” galore, invite them to our confabs and listen to their prophetic voices.  Might a postmodern Reformation break out?

In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes: “I believe we are amid a great awakening in the slumbering body of Christ. I once heard someone call us the Lazarus generation, for we are a generation risen from apathetic deadness of this world, a church that is awakening from her slumber.... We are not a neo-denomination. We are not even trying to spread a model of community. We are just trying to discover a new (ancient) kind of Christianity. We are about spreading a way of life that exists organically and relationally and is marked by such a brilliant love and grace that no one could resist it.”

Sounds hopelessly idealistic, doesn’t it? Yet Martin Luther wrote in 1520: “The Christian is free, subject to none. The Christian is servant, subject to all.” Surely no 21st century Reformer can be more idealistic (or scary) than that.

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.