On Sunday, as I led the church I serve at in prayer, the prayer naturally related to the Reformation. Four hundred and ninety five years ago today, a monk and professor by the name of Martin Luther nailed a list of issues he had with the church up on his local church door and – unbeknownst to him at the time – unleashed what we now call the Reformation. As a Protestant, I view the Reformation as a good thing, yet I also prayed a prayer for unity in the church.
Many people within the Christian Church these days seem to view Reformation Day in one of two ways: as an opportunity to bash the Catholic Church or as a terrible day in which the church was torn apart. The former group can show attitudes that are, to put it charitably, unchristian. The latter group treats the day as though we were commemorating the day one’s marriage failed.
Both views are wrongheaded. Added to those is an unfortunate third option so many people today fall into: complete apathy toward the day, or lack of awareness it even occurred. There is so much about not only the Christian Church, but also our entire culture today, that we cannot understand without considering the Reformation, that it is a day that is undeserving of being buried under candy, ghosts and vampires.
(And I have nothing against candy or Casper.)
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the Reformation. If one spends time reading about late Medieval Christianity, he or she discovers a church with much good going on within it, but also breathtaking levels of corruption. The indulgences – certificates essentially buying forgiveness of sins for a price – may have been what finally caused Luther to explode in outrage, but both Luther and others also discovered many other forms of corruption that marred the Church and hurt the faithful.
The Reformation not only eliminated many of the most terrible abuses of power wherever Lutheran or Reformed churches replaced Catholicism, so too, it forced the Catholic Church to clean up its act. The subsequent Council of Trent includes unfortunate reactionary responses to many previously acceptable ideas that Protestants had adopted, but at the same time helped to force the Catholic hierarchy into greater moral conformity to the church they allegedly had vowed to support.
In the end, the Christian Church in the Western world (and in those areas where Western missionaries went) was a healthier and – critically – more faithful body of believers because of the painful struggle that commenced in the Reformation.
Sometimes periods of great turmoil do more than anything else to fix what is broken.
So, why then pray both rejoicing in the good of the Reformation and out of a longing for unity? Because the severing of unity in the Western church should pain all Christians, even if the fragmentation was necessary to “keep the church honest.” No doubt, God used the Reformation, much as he used the Tower of Babel: to keep people from abusing centralized power for the glory of themselves and not the glory of God.
At the same time, it is still heartbreaking that we are not, as Christ prayed we would be, unified as one universal witness to the Gospel. Because we are sinful, many things simply cannot be as they ought. Nevertheless, Scripture calls the Christian to yearn and work for the day when God will bring restoration and transform the world back to the way it was intended to be.
Even if the Church is never reunified into one until the day Christ comes, Christians should strive to reach out and work with one another. A great hymn sings of how “they will know we are Christians by our love.” Regardless of the organizational divisions, we ought to use Reformation Day, and every other day, to make that true in our own faith.
After all, the Reformation was about being faithful to the call of Christ. Christ calls us to love one another, and that should call us to desire unity, even as we celebrate how God has worked powerfully through a necessary division.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America.